MANILA (Reuters) - The Association of Southeast Asian Nations should use an international court’s rejection of China’s claims to almost all the South China Sea as basis for a code of conduct, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said on Thursday.
Australia did not take sides in the South China Sea disputes, Bishop said, but it wanted to see “de-escalation of tension”, reiterating its opposition to China’s militarisation of man-made islands in the waters.
China and the 10-member ASEAN have been discussing for almost 15 years a set of rules aimed at avoiding conflict among rival claimants in the South China Sea.
“Given the arbitration has set out some very clear recommendations and findings, that can form the basis of the code of conduct,” Bishop said at a forum.
“There is a discussion to conclude a framework with China this year. I would urge the ASEAN and the Philippines’ leadership to go further and conclude a code of conduct as soon as possible.”
China claims most of the energy-rich South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion worth of trade passes each year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to parts of the sea.
Tensions reached a flashpoint after the Philippines filed an arbitration case against China in The Hague and as China started militarising artificial islands it built up on reefs in the South China Sea.
The tribunal ruled last year in Manila’s favour, but the election of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has seen a dramatic U-turn in his country’s approach.
Duterte has said repeatedly he wants to avoid confrontation with China and sees no need to press it to abide by the ruling.
Bishop said ASEAN should “recognise the force that it has when it speaks with one voice and it should not take a backward step if it believes that the positions it is putting are in its interest and not be cowed to backing down because of any fears of what might occur”.
ASEAN’s statements of concern often avoid mentioning China by name. Much is at stake from upsetting China, as ASEAN members, to varying extents, need its trade, investment and tourists.
Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Nick Macfie