ASEAN leaders drew a line in the ocean with China on Saturday, unifying behind a stance that a 1982 U.N. maritime treaty should serve as the basis for resolving disputes over claims in the South China Sea.
Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc announced the leaders' stance in a speech to the virtual summit, where the coronavirus pandemic and territorial disputes topped the concerns of the 10-nation intergovernmental organization, which was formed to promote regional stability.
Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam — invoked the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS, as its bottom-line legal framework for dealing with China's aggressive claims to neighbors' territories based on historical grounds.
"To uphold ASEAN’s centrality in the region, we have been improving our mechanisms for dialogue, cooperating to build trust, and reinforcing an open, transparent and rules-based order," Phuc said in his speech as host of the summit in Hanoi.
"ASEAN observes and promotes the full and strict compliance to the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea," he said, "and is making every effort to establish an effective Code of Conduct in line with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea."
Without directly referring to China, ASEAN leaders also said in "chairman's statement" issued and largely drafted by Vietnam that they "reaffirmed that the 1982 UNCLOS is the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones.”
A defense against China
After it came into force in 1994, UNCLOS created three new international organizations to manage ocean resources: the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, or ITLOS, based in Hamburg, Germany; the International Seabed Authority, based in Kingston, Jamaica; and the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, based at the U.N.’s headquarters at New York.
However, the treaty — which has 168 parties, but not the United States, the only major nation that does not belong — has no jurisdiction over the high seas, those international waters that are beyond the 200 nautical mile (370 kilometer) jurisdiction of coastal nations.
Exclusive economic zones generally reach 200 nautical miles from baselines or the continental shelf.
Another extension to UNCLOS, the U.N.’s Straddling Fish Stocks Agreement, entered into force in 2001 and has 91 parties, including the United States. It covers species that migrate among or are found in more than one exclusive economic zone.
ITLOS, an independent judicial body, has ruled in recent years to invalidate China's "historic claims" by finding most of the resources in the southern part of the energy-rich South China Sea belong to coastal nations such as the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Despite ratifying UNCLOS in 1996, China has largely dismissed the tribunal's work and decisions.
China also has turned seven reefs into island military bases, protected by missiles, and put runways on some of them. Some of the buildup is aimed at challenging the United States as a global power, in part by expanding its naval operations and deploying anticraft and anti-ship missiles.
In April, Vietnam, backed by the Philippines, protested two of China's new administrative units built on the Paracel and Spratly islands.