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ASEAN, China Agree on Measure to Avoid South China Sea Hostilities - 2002-11-02

Southeast Asian nations and China have agreed on a declaration to avoid an outbreak of hostilities in the South China Sea, an area that includes the disputed Spratly Islands. The agreement was reached on the eve of a major regional summit meeting that is due to open Monday in Phnom Penh.

Senior officials of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, say they agreed on a code of conduct for the South China Sea. They expect the agreement to be signed Monday by China and ASEAN heads of government.

The permanent secretary of Cambodia's foreign ministry, Chem Widhya, told reporters agreement was reached Friday evening in Phnom Penh. "The text stipulates the countries of ASEAN and China restrain from any activities that would escalate or that would complicate the relations among themselves, to exercise restraint, and to help any persons in distress," he said.

China, Taiwan and four ASEAN countries claim portions of territory and the waters around the Spratly Islands and several other small atolls (Macclesefield Bank, Scarborough Schoal and Paracel Islands) in the South China Sea.

Experts note the sea is a strategic route for trade ships and military fleets and call the dispute one of the most serious security concerns in the region.

ASEAN Secretary-General Rodolfo Severino told VOA that the dispute has been difficult to resolve because of the many overlapping claims in the area. "We realize that the settlement of the jurisdictional issues will take a very long time. In the meantime, the countries concerned are seeking an understanding on how to behave so these disputes don't accidentally or otherwise erupt into conflict," he said.

Mr. Severino said the declaration, when signed, will provide a major contribution to peace and stability of the region.

Observers note the declaration is non-binding, but ASEAN officials say it represents a political commitment that will be difficult for any government to ignore.

Asian leaders began working on a code of conduct for the South China Sea in the mid-1990s, but negotiations were slowed by disagreements with China and among ASEAN members. Senior officials say ASEAN members reached a consensus on the code of conduct earlier this week and China agreed to the draft declaration Friday evening.