SE Asia ministers air concerns over Beijing's activities in South China Sea

Singapore's Foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan speaks at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers' Meeting retreat in Singapore February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Calvin Wong

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Southeast Asian foreign ministers on Tuesday aired concerns over China’s activities in disputed areas of the South China Sea, noting that land reclamation continued even after talks began between their 10-member bloc and Beijing to agree a code of conduct.

Meeting in Singapore, the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) welcomed the start of negotiations, while calling for restraint in activities and avoidance of any actions that may complicate the situation.

“We discussed the matters relating to the South China Sea and took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region,” Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said.

Singapore has taken over the role of chairing ASEAN for 2018, and this week hosts meetings of the group’s foreign and defense ministers.

China and ASEAN in August adopted a negotiating framework for a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sean in August.

Both sides hailed the move as a sign of progress, with China welcoming the talks as an opportunity to bolster mutual understanding and trust. Critics, however, suspect Beijing of buying time to consolidate its maritime power.

Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines claim some or all of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest sea routes. China claims most of the waterway and has been aggressively building and militarizing artificial islands.

Balakrishnan said resolution of the South China Sea dispute would not be easy, even with the talks for a code of conduct under way.

“It’s going to be a very complicated negotiation,” he told a news conference. “Territorial claims are not resolved just because you have a COC,” he said.

Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore