PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—Ten Southeast Asian nations have agreed on a code of conduct to prevent armed clashes over the South China Sea but still seek to get China to join, a Cambodian official said on Monday.
The agreement was reached at a meeting of foreign ministers in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), to which China does not belong. The issue of contending maritime claims is the major topic of the talks held in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, in large part because tensions over the sea have escalated in recent months.
Chinese and Philippine ships engaged in a standoff in one disputed area starting in April, and Vietnam last month protested Chinese energy proposals for seas both nations claim.
In his opening speech at the Asean meeting, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen urged Southeast Asian countries to do more to promote mutual economic growth and security and called for a code of conduct in the South China Sea to be implemented.
Cambodian Secretary of State Kao Kim Hourn said at a news conference late on Monday that the declaration is intended to cover China in addition to Asean states. The code would spell out rules governing maritime rights and navigation in the South China Sea.
He said that Asean had “agreed on the key elements among Asean only, and from now on we have to start discussing this with China.” Details of the code of conduct were not given.
Asean will have a ministerial level meeting with China on Wednesday morning, along with other high-level meetings later this week.
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea and has created an entirely new city to administer it, sparking protests from rival claimants. The sea is crossed by some of the world’s busiest sea lanes, has rich fishing grounds and is believed to have vast energy reserves.
Hun Sen in his opening speech also said that Asean faces challenges including instability elsewhere in the world, natural disasters and high food and energy costs. He said the economic gap among Asean’s 10 members has narrowed but needs to be reduced further to ensure competitiveness and achieve real regional integration.
Kao Kim Hourn also announced the postponement of the signing of three documents on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone, which had been expected this week.
He said the delay was the result of reservations raised by several members of the five recognized nuclear-weapon states. Because they were raised “at the last minute,” more time was needed for additional consultations, he said.