ASEAN defense ministers discuss South China Sea in annual meeting



BANGKOK (Kyodo) — Defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Thursday exchanged views on the situation in the South China Sea in which some members of the grouping and China are at odds.

A joint declaration signed by the ministers after the meeting said they commended the first maritime exercise between ASEAN and China conducted last year, and welcomed the ASEAN-U. S. maritime exercise to be held later this year.

Thai Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, who chaired the meeting, said at a news conference that the ministers reiterated the importance of an early conclusion of an effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea on a mutually agreed timeline soon.

The ministers also reaffirmed the importance of seeking a peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law and avoiding actions that could further complicate the situation in the South China Sea.

Both China and the United States accuse the other of militarizing the South China Sea. China has rapidly built artificial islands and militarized areas it occupies in recent years.

China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, which is a vital shipping lane and believed to have rich fishing grounds. Rival claimants in the dispute are Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, with Vietnam being vocal in opposing China’s push for overlapping territorial claims.

Among six concept papers adopted by the ministers is one covering the terms of references tied to the “Our Eyes” initiative for sharing strategic information on terrorism and other nontraditional security threats.

The also signed the Joint Declaration of the ASEAN Defense Ministers on Sustainable Security, which emphasizes the importance of working together to safeguard security and stability in the region, and their commitment to exploring new mutually beneficial areas of cooperation.

Thailand, which holds the rotating chair of ASEAN this year, proposed new initiatives including improving the role of ASEAN defense establishments in supporting border management to address cross-border challenges.

ASEAN consists of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam.