Le Luong Minh, the new secretary general of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, called Wednesday for early talks between ASEAN and China on a legally binding code of conduct to reduce tension over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
"In the face of complicated developments in the South China Sea…ASEAN should speed up efforts towards an early start of negotiations with China with a view to achieving an early conclusion of a code of conduct on the South China Sea," the former Vietnamese deputy foreign minister said in his inaugural speech at the Jakarta-based ASEAN Secretariat.
Minh officially took over as ASEAN secretary general on Jan. 1 from former Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan, whose five-year term of office ended on Dec. 31, but the transfer-of-office ceremony was only held Wednesday.
Minh said that while ASEAN has made progress in the political and security fields, much remains to be achieved, "especially the measures relating to shaping and sharing standard norms of conduct, to confidence building, conflict prevention and resolution."
During a press conference later, Minh said the South China Sea is very important not only for the region, but also for the international peace and stability and maritime security.
"So we hope that ASEAN and China can fully engage to work in the negotiations on the code of conduct in the South China Sea," he told reporters.
The disputes in the South China Sea have periodically erupted into altercations, with standoffs between vessels of rival claimants, ship collisions and even naval clashes, which have heightened tensions in East Asia.
The Spratly Islands are claimed in whole by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, and in part by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
Other contested areas include the Paracel Islands, over which the navies of China and Vietnam have come to blows in the past, and Scarborough Shoal, an outcrop north of the Spratlys that is hotly disputed between China and the Philippines.
ASEAN also includes non-claimants Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.
In the economic realm, Minh said ASEAN, which established a free trade area in 2010, faces enormous challenges with only three years to go to achieve the targeted building of the ASEAN Economic Community by 2015.
"The more open flow of investments, capital, labor, goods and services will pose different challenges and opportunities for our member states, but it will also have a tremendous multiplier effect on the region," he said.