Jakarta. Australia, Japan and the United States on Monday (07/09) urged China and member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean, to speed up the drafting of a South China Sea code of conduct and said the document should be legally binding.
In a joint statement, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and her Japanese and US counterparts, Taro Kono and Rex Tillerson, expressed their "opposition to coercive unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions."
They also urged countries who claim territories in South China Sea to "refrain from land reclamation, construction of outposts, militarization of disputed features and undertaking unilateral actions that cause permanent physical change to the marine environment."
The statement came after foreign ministers from the 10-member bloc and China adopted the framework for a code of conduct on maritime disputes, which will kickstart actual negotiations on the code.
The final product is expected to resolve ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
It also followed a statement released by Asean foreign ministers on Sunday, which was delayed due to disagreements on whether or not to make references to China’s activities in the South China Sea and its expansion of defense capabilities there.
The final communique from Asean foreign ministers included an emphasis on "the importance of non-militarization and self restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states."
China has made claims on nearly all of South China Sea. Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan have also made claims on parts of the strategic waters.
However, China’s recent efforts at island-building and militarization on the disputed waters have prompted international dispute on who should be given control of the resource-rich waters, through which an estimated $3 trillion in annual shipping trade passes.
Vietnam has also been reportedly conducting oil drilling in the area since June.
While the framework adopted on Sunday does not guarantee the final outcome of the code of conduct will be legally binding, it will serve as an important instrument to kick off negotiations on solving this regional dispute.
"[...] The framework will hopefully pave the way toward meaningful and substantive negotiations [to] the conclusion of a COC [code of conduct]. It must be able not only to prevent but also to manage incidents of the kind that have taken place so far. For that COC to be effective, it will have to be legally binding," Asean secretary general Le Luong Minh said, as quoted by Singaporean newspaper The Straits Times.
Australia, Japan and the US said the code of conduct should be "legally binding, meaningful, effective and consistent with international law."