Defence ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have agreed a set of guidelines for warplanes flying over the disputed South China Sea, and will invite China and the US to sign up to the same code of conduct.
Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen announced the agreement at the annual Asean defence ministers’ meeting in Singapore, which ended on Friday.
The guidelines would reduce the risk of air accidents, Ng said. “[They] are like a seat belt. They do not completely protect you but at least they provide some protection.”
The bloc’s dialogue partners – Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the United States – would be urged to adopt the guidelines at the Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus on Saturday, he said.
The new guidelines on air encounters relate to airspace above the disputed South China Sea, whose islands and reefs are the subject of numerous territorial disputes involving Beijing, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The US has also been more assertive in recent months about its “freedom of navigation” rights in and over the disputed waters, much to Beijing’s displeasure.
While the new aerial guidelines are the first of their kind to be agreed by Asean, military experts were quick to point out that they are not legally binding.
Lee YingHui, a senior analyst at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said it was likely Asean would seek to get the “Plus” countries to agree to the non-binding rules.
“The rules of engagement spelt out in the new code are nothing new in the sense that customary international law already requires military aircraft to fly in accordance with the rules applicable to civilian aircraft, whenever practical, and also to exercise due regard during air-to-air encounters,” she said.
“The main contribution [of the guidelines] would be in terms of confidence-building.”
Kang Lin, a Chinese maritime researcher, said he did not expect China to rush to join the code as it had already signed an agreement with the US on air-to-air encounters in 2015.
“An agreement on airspace usage is more sensitive than a maritime one, because a warship can only go so near to a sensitive island. But planes can fly over such areas and capture important information about them from above,” he said.
However, he said the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea signed in 2014 by 21 countries although non-binding had been useful in minimising maritime disputes, although the recent near-miss involving US and Chinese warships in the South China Sea raised questions about its effectiveness.
Also on Thursday, China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe held talks with his US counterpart James Mattis on the sidelines of the Asean meeting Singapore.
The two had been set to meet earlier in the month but those talks were cancelled due to growing tensions between the two countries.
According to Xinhua, Wei urged Mattis to “walk with China” to maintain stability and peace in the disputed waters.
“The correct way of solving conflicts and differences is with respect and tolerance,” he said.
“There are differences between the US and China, but differences do not mean confrontation, competition does not mean rivalry,” Mattis is reported to have replied.
“The US is keen to develop military-to-military relations, and [we] think increasing cooperation is the only reasonable way to develop the relations.”