UPDATE2: ASEAN, China approve guidelines for maritime emergencies hotline

Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China on Wednesday adopted guidelines for an ASEAN-China hotline for use during maritime emergencies, a move designed to defuse tensions in the disputed South China Sea.

The 10-member ASEAN and China also approved the application of the code for unplanned maritime encounters at sea, or CUES, in the South China Sea.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting in the Lao capital Vientiane, Philippines Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said the hotline between foreign ministries of ASEAN member states and China should make available “as soon as possible.”

The agreement follows the landmark arbitration ruling in July that invalidated Beijing’s claims to almost the whole of the South China Sea. Four ASEAN members — Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei — have competing claims with Beijing over parts of the sea, a vital shipping lane and rich fishing grounds with possibly large oil and natural gas deposits.

China’s island construction and militarization of outposts in the South China Sea in its attempt to alter the status quo in disputed areas is expected to be high on the agenda during the East Asia Summit to be held Thursday in Vientiane.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are expected to urge China to comply with the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, but Chinese Premier Li Keqiang is likely to dismiss interventions from non-claimant states.

Earlier Wednesday, the ASEAN leaders wrapped up a two-day summit meeting, with other countries closely watching how the group refers to disputes between some ASEAN members and China in the South China Sea in a post-summit chairman’s statement.

According to ASEAN diplomatic sources, a draft chairman’s statement expressed “serious concern” about land reclamation in disputed waters, a veiled criticism of China’s muscle-flexing in asserting territorial claims in the South China Sea.

However, the draft statement made no reference to the arbitration court’s July 12 ruling, which Beijing has dismissed, the sources said.

The Philippines, which brought the arbitration case to The Hague, and Vietnam may have demanded that the statement refer to the ruling.

However, some ASEAN members with close ties with China, such as Cambodia, may have insisted that the statement not refer to the ruling. China is a major contributor of development assistance to Cambodia and its biggest source of foreign direct investment.

In an apparent effort to drive a wedge into ASEAN’s unity on the South China Sea issue, China has stepped up economic cooperation with ASEAN states through, for example, the Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and its “One Belt and One Road” initiative that links the emerging powerhouse to Central and Southeast Asia.

Speaking at the ASEAN-China summit, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said ASEAN and China should increase cooperation to promote peace and prosperity, which will benefit the peoples of both sides, according to Thai government spokesman Werachon Sukondhapatipak.

Thailand supports China’s One Belt and One Road initiative and the AIIB as a means of promoting infrastructure development, Werachon quoted Prayut as saying.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, with host Laos holding the rotating chairmanship of the regional body this year.