China has reasserted its sovereignty over disputed South China Sea islands, hours after the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) committed to exercise restraint following a diplomatic rift within the 10-member bloc.
The key issue of the South China Sea was disputes over sovereignty of ‘the Nansha islands’ – or Spratly islands – and their nearby islands, said a statement on the Foreign Ministry website.
‘There are adequate historical and legal explanations for China’s sovereignty over the Nansha islands and nearby sea,’ a spokesman for the ministry, Hong Lei, was quoted in the statement as saying.
China wished to ‘comprehensively and effectively follow the new code of conduct in the South China Sea together with other ASEAN countries,’ Hong said.
‘In the context of the continuous emergence of the current global financial crisis and its deep influence, China and ASEAN share the same interest and responsibility in maintaining regional peace and stability and keeping Asia’s development momentum.’
Earlier ASEAN foreign ministers said that member states had reaffirmed ‘the non-use of force by parties’ over the sea.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma.
The statement followed days of intense diplomacy by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.
The diplomat toured the region to build a consensus on the issue after ASEAN failed to agree a joint position at the end of an annual ministerial meeting held in Phnom Penh last week.
Beijing claims nearly all of the South China Sea, which holds key shipping lanes and is believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits.
ASEAN members Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei have vying claims to different areas, as does Taiwan.
Countries have faced off over the issue for centuries, but the failure of ASEAN last week to agree a joint closing statement for the first time in its 45-year history reinforced concerns the sea is fast becoming a global flashpoint.
A signatory to the UN Convention on Law of the Sea, China insisted that it was ‘not an international treaty that settles nations’ sovereign territorial disputes, nor can it be used as a reference for resolving such disputes’.
Malaysia and Brunei among other countries rely on the convention to claim territory they say falls within their economic exclusion zones as defined by the document.
A fleet of 30 Chinese fishing vessels arrived at what China calls Zhubi Reef in the Spratly Islands escorted by a navy patrol ship, state media reported on Monday.
Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam also claim the reef.
The fleet was the largest ever to be launched from the province of Hainan, the Xinhua news agency reported.
China at the end of last month announced an upgrade to the city of Sansha to administer three hotly contested archipelagos: the Spratlys, Paracels and Macclesfield Bank.
At the same time, Beijing also declared nine oilfields in the South China Sea open for bids from foreign investors in areas overlapping with fields claimed by Vietnam.
China had ‘an open attitude towards ASEAN countries’ discussion of the South China Sea code of conduct,’ Hong was quoted as saying.
‘China wishes all parties to strictly obey the declaration and create the necessary conditions and atmosphere for discussing the codes,’ the Foreign Ministry statement said.