Leaders from Southeast Asia and China say they’re making progress in keeping the peace in the disputed South China Sea as they work towards a “code of conduct” to govern navigation routes and other activities in the area.
Speaking at the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Singapore on Wednesday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said the region has set a good example of managing territorial disputes and keeping the peace as it works towards an agreement.
“We have found the way to properly manage and defuse differences, for example, on the issue of the South China Sea in the past years,” Li said.
He added the situation was moving towards “greater stability” with progress on a single draft text on a code of conduct and hopes of having a final agreement within three years.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he wanted at “all cost” to set rules governing behaviour in the disputed seas.
Duterte told reporters relations between China and its neighbours in Southeast Asia were “excellent” and friction was between Western nations and China. But he said a code of conduct was needed to avoid any “serious miscalculation”.
The United States has recently sent destroyers through the South China Sea on what it calls “freedom of navigation” operations – manoeuvres that have riled Beijing and nearly led to ship collisions.
The 10 members of ASEAN agreed to start negotiations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea in 2002, but little progress has been made amid rising tensions in the area, which is a crucial trade route for international shipping and thought to be rich in natural resources.
China claims almost the entire sea for itself and has built substantial structures on disputed outcrops and reefs in recent years.
The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam also claim parts of the sea, as does Taiwan.
Tensions over the maritime region have boiled over at previous ASEAN summits.
In 2012, at the meeting in Cambodia, discussions ended without a joint statement for the first time in the organisation’s history amid differences over the South China Sea.