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Benigno Aquino joins Asean leaders in Brunei

To forge a legally binding code of conduct for claimants in the South China Sea

Gulf News

Manila: President Benigno Aquino left on Wednesday afternoon for Brunei to join the summit of Southeast Asian leaders who will push for the full implementation of a code of conduct for claimants in the South China Sea, review the group’s charter, and strengthen economic partnerships in preparation for a reunified Asean (Association of South East Asian Nations) in 2015.

President Aquino who left with a 51-member delegation for Brunei, will push for a legally binding Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which was initially inked by Asean and China in 2002, a statement from the presidential palace said.

President Aquino will join other Asean leaders who have been pushing for an early conclusion of a substantive and legally binding code of conduct for claimants in the South China Sea, said the statement.

It is not known if China is willing to hold talks on this issue, and to sign a legally binding code of conduct.

China is for the forging of a bilateral agreement with each of the claimants in the South China Sea. An agreement with Asean on the issue is perceived as a multi-lateral agreement.

Asean leaders, who operate by consensus, will have to be more united this time to push for a legally binding code of conduct of South China Sea claimants.

A proposed draft of the summit’s statement said that talks with China on claims issue will be pushed by all Asean leaders. But there was no time-frame for these talks to end fruitfully. Brunei has given an assurance that talks should be concluded within the year.

Last year, Asean leaders failed to issue a statement on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the first time it happened, showing signs of a split in the regional bloc.

At the time, Cambodia, seen as pro-China, blocked Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia’s effort to have a united Asean front on pushing for China to arrive at a legally binding code of conduct for claimants in the South China Sea.

China, Vietnam, and Taiwan claim the whole of the South China Sea, based on their respective historical rights. Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines claim some parts of the Spratly Archipelago in the South China Sea, based on the provision of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which grants 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zones to countries starting from their shores.

Four of the claimants are Asean members.

Asean is composed of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The former Indo-China block included Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

The group’s ambitious aim is to be a united economic region in 2015, like the European Union.

In this light, Asean strengthen economic ties of all Asean members, in preparation for a wider free trade pack with its neighbours and trading partners such as China, Japan, South Korea, India, including Australia and New Zealand.

Asean is hoping to forge the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with trading partners in order for the Asean regional bloc to become a single market.

It is a very ambitious aim, said Brunei, this year’s chairman of the leaders’ summit.

Asean is the world’s third largest economic bloc.