US Welcomes ASEAN Leaders’ Calls to Resolve South China Sea Incidents in Line With International Law

June 29, 2020 Updated: June 29, 2020

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has welcomed South East Asian leaders urging at a regional summit to resolve disputes with China on the South China Sea in line with international law.

“China cannot be allowed to treat the SCS [South China Sea] as its maritime empire. We will have more to say on this topic soon,” Pompeo said in the tweet.

Vietnam and the Philippines warned at a summit held on June 26 of growing insecurity in Southeast Asia amid observations that China is stepping up its activity in the disputed South China Sea during the COVID-19 pandemic.

All participants of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit emphasized in a joint statement that regional and global issues must be resolved in accordance with “a rules-based regional and international order, anchored in international law.”

The ASEAN countries said that disputes should be settled “through peaceful means,” and that the resolution process should utilize legal and diplomatic means “without resorting to threat or use of force.”

In particular, ASEAN members reaffirmed that “peace, security, stability, safety, and freedom of navigation and over-flight above the South China Sea” should be maintained by adhering to international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) as well as multilateral agreements and laws governing conduct in the South China Sea region.

The statement also stressed that the South China Sea region should not be militarized and that activities which will complicate or escalate disputes cannot be conducted in the region.

President Rodrigo Duterte speaks after his arrival in Davao
President Rodrigo Duterte speaks at Davao International airport in Davao City in the southern Philippines, Sep. 8, 2018. (Lean Daval Jr/Reuters)

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said in his speech at the summit that despite all countries in the region struggling with the health crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, “alarming incidents in the South China Sea occurred.”

Duterte called on parties involved in these incidents “to refrain from escalating tensions and abide by responsibilities under international law, [including UNCLOS] … and to their commitments to international instruments, [such as] the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.”

“As Country Coordinator for ASEAN-China Dialogue … we must not lose sight of strategic interests in the [South] China Sea,” Duterte said.

“We remain committed to work closely with member states and China towards the early conclusion of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea,” he added.

China has been pushing its presence in the Exclusive Economic Zones of other countries while claimants are preoccupied with tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, prompting the United States to call on China to stop its “bullying behavior” there.

Vietnam protested in April after a Chinese coast guard ship rammed and sank a boat with eight fishermen off the Paracel Islands. The Philippines backed Vietnam’s position and protested new territorial districts announced by the Chinese regime in large swatches of the sea.

China said that Vietnam’s claims in South China Sea are illegal and “doomed to fail.”

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates “challenges within the political, economic, and social environment of the world and in each region,” Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said at the opening ceremony of the ASEAN summit, which was held by video.

“International institutions and international law are being seriously challenged,” Phuc said.

“While the entire world is stretched thin in the fight against the pandemic, irresponsible acts and acts in violation of international law are still taking place, affecting the environment of security and stability in certain regions, including in our region,” he added. He did not provide details of the violations.

A code of conduct in the South China Sea has been discussed for years between the ASEAN and China, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). In 2002, the parties agreed on a nonbinding set of guidelines known as the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

However, Indonesia said that further negotiations require both parties to be physically present in one place, reported The Jakarta Post. Therefore, the negotiations have to be postponed until the situation with the COVID-19 crisis improves, said an Indonesian official.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.