China, ASEAN reach South China Sea agreement

The deal between Chinese officials and representatives of Southeast Asian countries is a big step, but doesn't address the key source of tension: territorial claims.

Widodo S. Jusuf/Antara/Reuters
Vietnam's Pham Quang Vinh (L) and China's Liu Zhenmin (R) speak to reporters after an ASEAN-China senior officials meeting in Nusa Dua, on the Indonesian island of Bali July 20.

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China and several Southeast Asian nations have agreed on a preliminary set of behavioral guidelines in the South China Sea, a resource-rich body of water critical to global shipping that is claimed by China and by several other countries in the region.

A Chinese diplomat said the agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was reached at a meeting today of Asian security officials in Bali, Indonesia. China has long resisted signing any document that would require any disputes in the South China Sea be resolved without using or threatening any violence, the Associated Press reports.

Despite today's agreement, no decisions have been made on territorial claims. China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, and Taiwan all claim territory in the South China Sea, Reuters reports. China claims it in its entirety.

China has been at odds with the Philippines and Vietnam in recent months over what they consider intrusions into their territorial waters and China's increasing aggression in staking out its claim. The Philippines and Vietnam accuse Chinese ships of blocking their energy exploration and harassing fishing vessels.

In the latest tiff between the Philippines and China, a group of Filipino lawmakers visited one of the South China Sea's Spratly Islands, despite Chinese warnings that the visit could damage ties between the two countries. The Philippines occupies and claims one of the islands, which are rich in oil and natural gas, as do Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam – although China claims the whole sea.

Chinese officials said that the trip ran counter to a nonbinding agreement between China and ASEAN countries reached in 2002, according to the AP.

The Declaration of Conduct on the South China Sea mandates that disputes in the South China Sea be settled through "friendly coordination and negotiation" and that signatories "refrain from activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability in the region," Xinhua reports.

Philippine presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said that the lawmakers' "sovereignty mission" was not a violation of international law because they were visiting Philippine territory. However, the Philippine government was also careful to distance itself from the visit, explaining that it was not sanctioned by the House of Representatives and that the lawmakers were going of their own volition, according to Filipino news outlet ABS-CBN News.

The US has waded into the dispute as well, protesting China's efforts to gain control of the entire body of water on the grounds that it interferes with "freedom of navigation," the Financial Times reports. China has rejected US efforts to be a part of negotiations on the South China Sea, insisting that the issues are bilateral.

Prior to this week's ASEAN meeting, Sens. John Kerry, (D) of Massachusetts, and John McCain, (R) of Arizona, said in a letter to a Chinese foreign policy official, "We are concerned that a series of naval incidents in recent months has raised tensions in the region. … If appropriate steps are not taken to calm the situation, future incidents could escalate, jeopardizing the vital national interests of the United States.”

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