MANILA (Reuters) – Southeast Asian countries and China will establish hotlines and adopt communications protocols to avoid potential naval clashes in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, a Philippines foreign ministry official said on Friday.
The protocols will be signed in Laos next week, when heads of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meet with leaders from other regional powers – China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, Russia and the United States – for a three-day summit.
The mechanism, called the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), would be new for both ASEAN and China, Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Helen de la Vega told a news conference.
“It’s one way of de-escalating tensions in the South China Sea,” she said, adding that hotlines between China and the ASEAN governments would be established.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea where about $5 trillion (3.77 trillion pounds) sea-borne trade passes annually. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims on parts of the sea, which is believed to have rich deposits of oil and gas.
“This is very important because any accident that can lead to a major confrontation will be avoided if our navies and coast guards are communicating with each other,” a senior Philippines navy commander told Reuters.
He said there had been instances in the past when Chinese vessels had not responded to radio and signal communications when they had been encountered by a Philippine Navy ship.
Regardless of this agreement, the United States, Japan and Australia are expected to call on China to respect and comply with the ruling of the arbitration court in The Hague in July.
The court infuriated Beijing by ruling that China had no historical title over the South China Sea and it had breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights.
The Philippines new President Rodrigo Duterte said he will raise the arbitral ruling but will champion other issues, like ridding Southeast Asia of narcotics, clamping down on human trafficking and protection for migrant workers.
Duterte is holding nine bilateral talks, including with U.S. President Barack Obama, Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but as of yet no meetings had been scheduled with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang or U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
China’s foreign ministry said on Friday China was open to a meeting with Duterte during the summit in Laos, and would also welcome him to visit China at an early date.
(Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing By Simon Cameron-Moore)