A press conference for the Asean 2020 summit, which was held via video conferencing. -Agency
South-east Asian leaders said a 1982 UN 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 (Asean) took the position in a statement issued by Vietnam on behalf of the 10-country bloc on Saturday. Asean leaders held their annual summit by video call on Friday, with the coronavirus pandemic and the long-running territorial disputes high on the agenda.
The Asean statement said: "We reaffirmed that the 1982 UNCLOS is the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones."
The leaders were referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a 1982 international agreement that defines the rights of countries to the world's oceans.
It also demarcates stretches of waters called exclusive economic zones where coastal states are given the right to exclusively tap fishery and fuel resources. The leaders said in the 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. Three south-east Asian diplomats told AP, however, it marked a significant strengthening of the regional bloc's assertion of the rule of law in a disputed region long regarded as an Asian flashpoint. They spoke on condition of anonymity due to a lack of authority to speak publicly.
As Asean's leader for 2020, Vietnam oversaw the drafting of the chairman's statement. This was not a negotiated document but circulated among other member states for consultation. Vietnam has been one of the most vocal critics of China's assertive actions in the disputed waters.
China has taken increasingly aggressive steps to bolster its claims to the strategic waters. It vaguely marks them with a "nine-dash line" that overlaps with the coastal waters and territorial claims of Asean member states Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei. Taiwan has also staked a claim in vast stretches of the disputed waters.
In July 2016, an international arbitration tribunal invalidated China's vast historical claims to the waters based on UNCLOS. China refused to participate in the case and dismissed the ruling as a sham.
In recent years, China transformed seven disputed reefs into missile-protected island bases, including three with military-grade runways. It continues to develop them in ways that have sparked protests and alarmed rival claimant states, as well as the US and its Asian and western allies.
In recent months, China has come under fire for what rival claimants said were aggressive actions in the disputed waters as countries were scrambling to deal with the coronavirus crisis.
Vietnam protested in April after a Chinese coastguard ship rammed and sank a boat with eight fishermen off the Paracel Islands. The Philippines backed Vietnam and protested against new territorial districts announced by China in large swaths of the sea.
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