Southeast Asia flags progress with China over disputed waterway talks

Southeast Asian nations are set to announce agreement with China on a working text for negotiations over a code of conduct to ease tension in the disputed South China sea at a meeting that began on Thursday.

A draft communique seen by Reuters shows the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) also aims to soon reach a cybersecurity deal with Russia, which the United States has accused of election meddling, following hacks in the region.

The communique, which reiterated ASEAN’s commitment to an ambitious trade pact backed by China, is set to be issued by ASEAN foreign ministers on Saturday at the close of the meeting of top diplomats in Singapore.

“We noted with satisfaction the ASEAN member states and China had agreed on a single draft COC (Code of Conduct) negotiating text,” read the draft communique, adding that it was reached in June during high-level talks in China.

ASEAN also urged steps for “the complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation” of the Korean peninsula, saying it welcomed a pact between the United States and North Korea at June’s landmark summit in Singapore.

Speaking on the event sidelines, the Chinese government’s top diplomat on Thursday called for a push to establish a peace mechanism for the Korean peninsula as well as denuclearisation.

China, along with North Korea and the United States, is a signatory to the armistice that concluded the 1950-53 Korean War, rather than a peace treaty.

“We should, at the same time as realising the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, push forward with establishing a peace mechanism for the peninsula,” said Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi.

CYBER SECURITY PACT

During the next few days, Southeast Asian nations also hope to strike a cybersecurity agreement with Russia, the draft document showed.

“We welcome the further strengthening (of) our cooperation in cybersecurity with Russia through the issuance of the statement of ASEAN and Russian foreign ministers,” it said.

Singapore, the meeting’s host, suffered its worst cyberattack in July, when hackers stole the personal information of about 1.5 million people, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, from a government health database.

Malaysia this year said it had foiled a cyber heist of its central bank.

Neither country has identified the hackers and neither suggested the involvement of Russia, which last year appointed a dedicated ambassador to ASEAN based in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.

US intelligence agencies have said a Russian propaganda arm tried to tamper with the 2016 presidential election by posting and buying ads on Facebook. Moscow has denied involvement.

Facebook said it has identified a new coordinated political influence campaign to mislead its users and sow dissension among voters ahead of November’s US congressional elections.

SOUTH CHINA SEA

Southeast Asian nations and China have overlapping claims to islands in the South China Sea. For years they have been discussing an agreement to prevent escalation in one of the world’s busiest waterways.

The draft to be announced will form the basis of further discussions, likely to be lengthy, before a final version is reached.

Critics have said the emphasis on reaching a consensus for the code of conduct works in China’s favour as a delaying tactic to ease criticism of its militarisation of man-made islands in the disputed region.

The statement, set against the backdrop of the protectionist trade policies of the United States, also reiterated ASEAN’s commitment to wrap up a major trade pact backed by China, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

“We reiterated the priority placed by ASEAN on the RCEP as a centrepiece of its external economic relations, particularly at a time of growing uncertainties in global trade,” it said.

Singapore’s prime minister said on Thursday the deal would create the world’s largest trading bloc, covering a third of the global economy.

The United States, set to meet ASEAN leaders on Friday, has said it will press Southeast Asia to keep up sanctions on Pyongyang.

That follows reports of renewed activity at the factory that produced North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United