The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China were expected Wednesday to adopt a protocol aimed at preventing clashes resulting from unplanned encounters in the disputed South China Sea.
The signing of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea at a summit in Vientiane, Laos comes as the Philippines warned China might be preparing for fresh construction work.
The Philippine Defence Department released new surveillance photos of 10 ships spotted in the South China Sea near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which included four vessels that look like barges.
The photos and a map were released ahead of the meeting between ASEAN leaders and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, when it was unclear if they would discuss the territorial disputes.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had said he would not raise the July 12 ruling of an international arbitration court that rejected China’s claims to almost the entire South China Sea.
But the ASEAN leaders had a “candid exchange on views on regional and international issues of mutual interest and concerns,” during a “retreat” ahead of the meeting with China.
The topics included territorial disputes, maritime security and safety and the South China Sea, according to a statement by Laos, ASEAN’s current chair.
Officials said the agreement on communications protocols would be “very important” in preventing potential clashes.
They added that the code would be one way of easing tensions in the sea, a key shipping lane believed to be rich in marine and mineral resources.
ASEAN leaders were expected to express serious worries over Chinese land reclamation in the South China Sea, according to a draft statement to be issued at the end of the summit.
“We remain strongly concerned over recent and ongoing developments and took note of the concerns expressed by some leaders on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region,” the draft statement said.
However, the leaders are unlikely to make any official mention of the international Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that Beijing has no legal right to claim a large part of the South China Sea.
A Philippine security official said Duterte wanted to meet with China to resolve the issue, noting that the government had to take into consideration the plight of local fishermen whose traditional fishing grounds include Scarborough Shoal.
“We won in the arbitral court, but we could not enforce it, how can we explain that to our own fishermen?" said the official, who requested not to be named.
"So, we wanted to talk to China and resolve the issue, but the situation like this is making it more difficult. The president is asking what are China's intentions in the area?"
Manila filed the case in January 2013 after China took control of Scarborough Shoal, 124 nautical miles from the Philippines’ north-western coast.
China, which did not participate in the arbitration case, has rejected the court's ruling as “null and void.”
The Philippines has repeatedly called on China to respect international law in resolving maritime territorial disputes and stressed that any talks would have to be based on the court’s ruling.
Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam also have overlapping claims to the South China Sea, in addition to China and the Philippines.