MANILA (Reuters) – Australia, Japan and the United States on Monday urged Southeast Asia and China to ensure that a South China Sea code of conduct they have committed to draw up will be legally binding and said they strongly opposed “coercive unilateral actions”.
The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China should establish a set of rules that were “legally binding, meaningful, effective, and consistent with international law”, the foreign ministers of the three countries said in a statement following a meeting in Manila.
Foreign ministers of ASEAN and China on Sunday adopted a negotiating framework for a code of conduct, a move they hailed as progress but seen by critics as a tactic to buy China time to consolidate its maritime power.
Australia, Japan and the United States also “voiced their strong opposition to coercive unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions”.
They urged claimants to refrain from land reclamation, construction of outposts and militarization of disputed features, a veiled reference to China’s expansion of its defense capability on Mischief, Fiery Cross and Subi reefs in the Spratly archipelago.
The three countries are not claimants but have long been vocal on the issue, arguing their interest is in ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight.
They urged China and the Philippines to abide by last year’s international arbitration ruling, which invalidated China’s claim to almost the entire South China Sea, where more than $3 trillion worth of sea-borne goods passes every year.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have competing claims there.
The code framework is an outline for what China and ASEAN call “consultations” on a formal agreement, which could start later this year.
Several ASEAN countries want the code to be legally binding, enforceable and have a dispute resolution mechanism. But experts say China will not allow that and ASEAN may end up acquiescing to what amounts to a gentlemen’s agreement.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said there was a “sharp contrast” in perceptions this year between regional and non-regional countries, and the…