Beijing Hints at Compromise on South China Sea

By Niniek Karmini 14 August 2012

JAKARTA, Indonesia—China’s top diplomat said on Friday the country was willing to ease differences over the handling of territorial disputes in the South China Sea and insisted that maintaining peace there was a shared responsibility.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi is on a two-day visit to Indonesia after his Jakarta counterpart Marty Natalegawa made whirlwind visits to Southeast Asian nations trying to smooth discord over handling of South China Sea disputes.

The foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) failed to issue a concluding joint statement at their recent summit for the first time in the bloc’s 45-year history. Cambodia, the host country and a close China ally, refused to sign off on language sought by the Philippines and Vietnam mentioning their individual disputes with China over the South China Sea.

Yang said at their joint news conference Friday that China was willing to work with Asean to implement the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. That document was signed by Asean and China in 2002 and discourages aggressive acts that might spark clashes, but it has not yet been implemented.

China was also willing “on the basis of consensus to work toward the eventual adoption of the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea,” Yang said. China has yet to sign that document, an advanced framework for peacefully resolving disputes in the South China Sea.

Four Asean members—Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines—plus China and Taiwan claim all or part of the South China Sea, which is rich in fishing, has some of the world’s busiest sea lanes and is believed to have vast energy deposits.

China has long said it wants to handle disputes over its claims bilaterally, while the other claimants have tried to raise the issue in international forums. Yang did not raise those differences in his remarks on Friday.

“I’m assured very much that our diplomacy is very much on track,” Natalegawa said. “We still have the Declaration on Conduct to implement and the Code of Conduct to work toward.”

The increasing spats over the sea have raised concerns that the area could become a flashpoint for violence. Washington has said maintaining freedom of navigation in the sea is in its national interest, a position that has angered China.

Yang also plans to visit Brunei and Malaysia on his current trip.