China signs S.China Sea guidelines, seeks to turn page on row

NUSA DUA, Indonesia, July 21 Thu Jul 21, 2011 6:36am EDT

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NUSA DUA, Indonesia, July 21 (Reuters) - China and Southeast Asian nations officially approved guidelines on conduct in the South China Sea on Thursday, a small sign of progress in the dispute and a potential boost for Beijing in defusing tensions before the United States joins the meetings.

The one-page document is intended to drive the process of making the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the contested South China Sea more concrete.

Officials from China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed on the guidelines on Wednesday, ending almost a decade of deadlock. China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and the ASEAN counterparts officially signed off on Thursday.

"This afternoon ... the ministers of China and ASEAN countries formally endorsed the guidelines and also started implementation -- fully and comprehensively -- of the DOC," Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said.

Its acceptance was seen as a small but uncommon sign of cooperation on the dispute in the South China Sea, where China, Taiwan, and four ASEAN members -- the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam -- all claim territory.

But Liu tried to steer dialogue away from the sensitive sea dispute and toward China-ASEAN trade cooperation, reiterating pledges to boost bilateral trade to $500 billion by 2015.

"We are looking to the future. We want to be good friends, good partners and good neighbours with ASEAN countries," he told reporters after a closed-door China-ASEAN meeting.

China's acquiescence on the guidelines may be a means of mollifying ASEAN enough to take the topic off the table before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's scheduled arrival later on Thursday for the ASEAN Regional Forum, the biggest security conference in Asia.

But that may be unlikely as the Philippines, one of the claimants, remains unconvinced that the guidelines would be sufficient to end tensions in the area.

China has accused the U.S. of stoking tensions in the region by holding naval drills in the contested waters.

"Perhaps China agreed to it as a way of defusing the situation," said Ian Storey, a maritime security expert at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, who called the guidelines "boilerplate" and unlikely to have much impact.

"It would make sense for China to maximise these opportunities since its image has been tarnished recently with its more muscular diplomacy," Storey said, noting that China wants to be seen as a positive player on the South China Sea and on long-stalled six-party talks on the Korean peninsula nuclear situation.

China has urged the resumption of those talks, and ASEAN officials said Japan and South Korea also supported the proposal.

"They would like to see all parties exercising full effort in order to move the process, particularly the six-party talks, forward," ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan told reporters.

All of the participants in the Korea talks -- North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, the United States and Russia -- will be at the forum on Bali island.

U.S. officials, however, have said Washington is wary of resuming the talks without concrete evidence that Pyongyang is willing to change its bellicose behaviour.

The U.S. also issued a statement on Thursday saying it "categorically denies" rumours that Clinton would meet with North Korea's foreign minister at the summit. (Additional reporting by Olivia Rondonuwu; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Daniel Magnowski)

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