China values South China Sea code and Asean’s role, Beijing tells Singapore

February 22, 2023

KUALA LUMPUR – China will push for cooperation with South-East Asia, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said amid rising tensions in the South China Sea.

Qin made the comments on Monday while hosting his Singaporean counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan in Beijing.

According to China’s foreign ministry, Qin told Balakrishnan that China firmly supported Asean’s leading role in the region, which he said had steered East Asian cooperation in the right direction.

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“China is willing to deepen cooperation with Asean and create more opportunities to work together to promote peace, tranquillity, prosperity, beauty and friendship,” he was quoted as saying.

“China is also willing to work with Asean countries to fully and effectively implement the [Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea] and jointly maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

The non-binding declaration, signed in 2002 by China and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) member nations, aims to reduce the risk of conflict in regional waters, with the eventual goal of implementing a binding code of conduct.

The binding code is intended to manage tensions in the South China Sea, a resource-rich and strategically important waterway that is subject to overlapping claims from China and several Asean members, such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.

Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea and has ignored an international court ruling that its claims have no legal basis.

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In recent weeks, joint military drills by the Philippines and the United States following a Chinese coastguard’s use of a laser against a Philippine vessel aggravated tensions in the regional waters. The Philippines also signed a proposed agreement with Japan this month to cooperate on disaster relief, a measure widely seen as a step towards a defence pact.

Balakrishnan welcomed China’s continued interest in broadening and deepening its engagement with Asean, Singapore’s foreign ministry said.

During the meeting, both nations reaffirmed their relationship, which had remained strong even amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Qin stressed Singapore’s importance as a cooperative partner to China and said China viewed the city state’s unique role in regional and international affairs with great importance.

Both China and the US are stepping up engagement with Southeast Asia. The US has accused China of acting aggressively in the South China Sea with the deployment of military vessels, which Washington has said caused unsafe encounters with US vessels. But Beijing said US military deployment to the region was a provocation.

Qin will visit Indonesia, the current Asean chair country, from Tuesday to Thursday at the invitation of the Indonesian foreign minister, Retno Marsudi.

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Marsudi said earlier this month that Indonesia planned to intensify talks with China and other Southeast Asian countries to finalise the South China Sea code of conduct, with the first round of negotiations to be held in March.

It will be Qin’s first trip to Indonesia since he became foreign minister. According to the Indonesian ministry, Qin will also pay a courtesy call to President Joko Widodo in Jakarta during his trip.

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