Opposing China’s claim to the South China Sea, Southeast Asian leaders have said that a 1982 U.N. oceans treaty should be the basis of sovereign rights and entitlements in the strategic waters.
“We reaffirmed that the 1982 UNCLOS is the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones,” the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) took the position in a statement issued by Vietnam on behalf of the 10-nation bloc.
The ASEAN leaders were referring to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international agreement that defines the rights of nations to the world’s oceans and demarcates stretches of waters called exclusive economic zones where coastal states are given the right to exclusively tap fishery and fuel resources.
“UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out,” the leaders said.
Some Southeast Asian diplomats said that the announcement marked a significant strengthening of the regional bloc’s assertion of the rule of law in a disputed region that has long been regarded as an Asian flash point. “This is a rebuke of the basis of China’s claims,” said Carl Thayer, a prominent South China Sea analyst.
He said the statement represented “a significant shift in ASEAN’s rhetoric.”
In recent years, China has taken increasingly aggressive steps to strengthen its claims to the South China Sea, which it vaguely marks with a so-called nine-dash line that overlaps with the coastal waters and territorial claims of ASEAN member states Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei.
In July 2016, an international arbitration tribunal invalidated China’s vast historical claims to the waters based on UNCLOS. China refused to participate in the case and dismissed the ruling as a sham.
China in recent years transformed seven disputed reefs into missile-protected island bases, including three with military-grade runways, and continues to develop them in actions that have set off protests and alarmed rival claimant states.
In recent months, China has come under fire for what rival claimants say were “aggressive actions in the disputed waters” as countries were scrambling to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.
Vietnam protested in April after a Chinese coast guard ship rammed and sank a boat with eight fishermen off the Paracel Islands. The Philippines backed Vietnam and protested new territorial districts announced by China in large swaths of the sea.