Southeast Asian leaders were upbeat yesterday about progress made on an ambitious plan to weld the region into an EU-style economic community as a counterweight to Asian powerhouse China, while efforts were stalling on South China Sea disputes.
Leaders attending the ASEAN summit in Brunei had hoped China would soon agree to start talks on a nonaggression pact to prevent a major clash in the disputed territories that could smoke out their region’s robust economies.
However, China has given no clear indication when it would agree to negotiate such a stopgap accord, known in ASEAN parlance as a “code of conduct.”
The ASEAN leaders said in a joint statement after the summit that they have asked their foreign ministers “to continue to work actively with China on the way forward for the early conclusion of a code of conduct.”
“We all agreed to encourage continuing discussions, dialogues and consultations at all levels, especially claimant countries, and to keep the lines of communication open,” said Brunei’s leader, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, host of this year’s ASEAN summits.
Rival claimants, the leaders said, should resolve the disputes peacefully “without resorting to the threat or use of force while exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities.”
Thailand has proposed a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers where they could again discuss the disputes, before they meet their Chinese counterpart in Beijing sometime in October, diplomats said.
Bolkiah proposed an emergency hotline to avoid misunderstandings, such as when fishermen take shelter in a disputed area amid a storm, an act that could be mistaken for an intrusion.
During the summit, ASEAN leaders also expressed concern about North Korea’s latest threats.
Although overshadowed by security issues, an ambitious plan by ASEAN to transform itself into an EU-like community of more than 600 million people by the end of 2015 has sparked more optimism, with diplomats saying the bloc was on track to meet the deadline.
About 77 percent of the work to turn the bustling region into a single market and production base, first laid out in 2007, has been done, the leaders said.
However, non-tariff barriers and regulatory hurdles that impede investments and business still need to be abolished, they said. They announced that negotiations would start on May 9 for a vast free-trade area with key trading partners China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Free-trade talks with Hong Kong will also be launched.