India concerned over situation in South China Sea that ‘erode trust’

Against the backdrop of China’s assertive activities in the South China Sea, India on Saturday expressed concern over actions in the region that erode trust and said a proposed code of conduct for the disputed waters shouldn’t affect the legitimate interests of third parties.

External affairs minister S Jaishankar outlined India’s position on the South China Sea while representing the country at the East Asia Summit, which brings together the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), India, Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand South Korea, Russia and the US.

With Chinese Premier Li Keqiang watching, Jaishankar pointed to the importance of adhering to international law, respecting territorial integrity and sovereignty, and promoting a rules-based global order.

Without naming China, Jaishankar expressed concern about actions and incidents in the South China Sea that “erode trust” and said ongoing negotiations on the proposed code of conduct “should not be prejudicial to legitimate interests of third parties and should be fully consistent” with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The minister’s remarks came amid the India-China border standoff in Ladakh sector along the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Both sides are yet to make headway in disengagement and de-escalation despite several rounds of diplomatic and military talks since the standoff began in May.

China has been pushing the members of Asean to quickly conclude negotiations for the code of conduct for the South China Sea. Premier Li had raised the issue during the Asean-China Summit on Thursday, reflecting Beijing’s efforts to consolidate its influence in the region.

The code of conduct is aimed at regulating activities in the South China Sea, where China is embroiled in disputes with Asean members such as Vietnam and the Philippines.

The virtual East Asia Summit, chaired by Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in his capacity as chair of Asean, discussed ways to strengthen the platform and make it more responsive to emerging challenges. Jaishankar reaffirmed the importance of the summit as a leaders-led forum to exchange views on strategic issues.

He also underlined the need for greater global cooperation in the post-Covid-19 world to tackle challenges cutting across national boundaries such as terrorism, climate change and pandemics. He briefed the summit on India’s response to Covid-19 and reiterated Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s commitment to help make vaccines accessible and affordable to all nations.

Jaishankar also noted the growing interest in the Indo-Pacific as an “integrated and organic maritime space with Asean at its centre”. He pointed to the synergy between Asean’s Indo-Pacific outlook and India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative and said: “Harmonising various perspectives would never be a challenge if there is commitment to international cooperation.”

The leaders underlined the importance of cooperation in ensuring safe, effective and affordable access to Covid-19 vaccines, and sought greater cooperation in keeping global supply chains open for a speedy and sustainable economic recovery.

Regional and international issues such as the situation in the Korean peninsula and the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar’s Rakhine state were also discussed.

The summit adopted the Hanoi Declaration and four leaders’ statements on marine sustainability, epidemics prevention and response, women, peace and security, and steady growth of the regional economy.

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