MANILA, Philippines — Southeast Asian leaders said a 1982 U.N. oceans treaty should be the basis of sovereign rights and entitlements in the South China Sea, in one of their strongest remarks opposing China’s claim to virtually the entire disputed waters on historical grounds.
The leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations took the position in a statement issued by Vietnam Saturday on behalf of the 10-nation bloc. ASEAN leaders held their annual summit by video on Friday, with the coronavirus pandemic and the long-raging territorial disputes high on the agenda.
“We reaffirmed that the 1982 UNCLOS is the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones,” the ASEAN statement said.
The leaders were referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a 1982 international agreement that defines the rights of nations to the world’s oceans and demarcates stretches of waters called exclusive economic zones where coastal states are given the right to exclusively tap fishery and fuel resources.
They said in their statement that “UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out.”
Chinese officials did not immediately comment on the statement, but three Southeast Asian diplomats told The Associated Press that it marked a significant strengthening of the regional bloc’s assertion of the rule of law in a disputed region that has long been regarded as an Asian flash point. They spoke on condition of anonymity due to a lack of authority to speak publicly.