Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on Tuesday, November 13, said a rulebook to settle disputes in the hotly contested South China Sea should be finished in three years. He also insisted that his nation does not seek “hegemony or expansion.”
Talks about the code of conduct have dragged on for years, with China accused of delaying progress as it prefers to deal with less powerful countries on a one-to-one basis. Li’s comments appeared to be the first clear timeframe for finishing the book.
Ownership of islands and waters in the South China Sea is disputed by the Philippines and several other nations.
The country’s “principled positions” on the dispute over the South China Sea will be “reiterated” by President Rodrigo Duterte during this week’s summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in Singapore, according to Malacañang on Tuesday.
In a statement, the Palace said, “The president will reiterate the Philippines’ principled positions on matters concerning the South China Sea and transnational and trans-boundary issues such as terrorism, violent extremism, trafficking in persons, illicit drugs and disaster risk reduction and management.”
“The Philippines looks forward to exchanging views on ASEAN community-building as well as discussions on regional and global developments that impact regional peace, security and stability,” it added.
Duterte in the past has talked about his preference to set aside the Philippines’ 2016 victory in an international arbitration court, which invalidated Beijing’s claims on the disputed waters, in the meantime in favor of boosting economic ties.
China has established military positions on disputed outcrops and intimidates fishermen and naval vessels from rival countries, as reported by The Manila Times.
Tensions are ever-present with fellow claimants such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan, as well as the United States.
Li, speaking in Singapore ahead of the opening of an Asean summit, said that it is China’s hope that the code of conduct consultation will be finished in three years’ time in order to contribute to enduring peace and stability in the South China Sea.
“We are not and we will not seek hegemony or expansion. That is something that we will never do,” he said.
“What we hope is to have a harmonious relationship with our neighbors,” he added.
Warships and drills
Small signs of progress can be seen in recent months.
In August, China and Southeast Asian nations announced that they had agreed on their initial bargaining positions as they work towards a code.
Both sides had hailed this as a vital step, however, critics pointed out that some of Beijing’s proposals in the agreement were clearly aimed at expanding its influence in the region at the expense of Washington.
First joint drills by navies from China and Southeast Asia were also staged last month in the South China Sea in an effort to ease tensions.
Many parts of Southeast Asia have weakened their opposition to to China’s aggressive behavior in the waters in recent years as they are keen to attract investment from Beijing. They are also worried about U.S. commitment to the region under President Donald Trump.
Washington and other western allies like Britain and Australia, for their part, have ramped up freedom of navigation exercises in recent months.
A stance that infuriates Beijing, however, is the sailing of warships through the strategic region. It is bid to enforce the idea that the sea is international waters and open to all.
According to National Security Advisor John Bolton, any code of conduct deal struck between China and Southeast Asian nations should not be allowed to restrict access to the sea.
“It also has to be acceptable to all the countries that have legitimate maritime and naval military rights to transit and other associated rights that we don’t want to see infringed,” he said.