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Asean, China agree on key South China Sea issues

CONSENSUS has been reached between Asean and China on some key issues on the South China Sea, even as a statement is expected to avoid mentioning a recent international ruling against Beijing's territorial claims in the waters.

Two agreements over the South China Sea - one on a set of protocol on unplanned encounters and another on hotline communications - were reached at the 19th Asean-China summit held in Vientiane, Laos, on Wednesday morning.

The agreements come as the 11 nations commemorate the 25th anniversary of Asean-China dialogue. Singapore is currently the coordinating country for the dialogues, and will hold this post until 2018.

Said Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is at the summit, on tensions over the South China Sea: "Our relations are much broader than any one issue. We can continue to chart positive trajectory for Asean-China relations."

"We appreciate China's longstanding support for Asean centrality and unity," he added.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said in Mandarin at the summit: "China's relations with Asean are the most vibrant, the most successful that we have. The reason for this is simple - we are neighbours, the closest neighbours possible."

The two agreements are the first seminal documents regarding the situation in the South China Sea since the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in mid-July that China's claims to economic rights across large swathes of the South China Sea have no legal basis. These claims by China overlap with those of the Philippines and some other Asean countries.

One of the agreements deals with unplanned encounters in the South China Sea. The document, called "Joint Statement on the Application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (Cues) in the South China Sea", is aimed at managing risks in the vital waterway.

The other agreement, titled "Guidelines for Hotline Communications among Senior Officials of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Asean Member States and China in Response to Maritime Emergencies", lays down guidelines to establish hotline communications among senior diplomats in these 11 countries.

The countries now look towards formalising a binding set of protocol by the first half of next year.

A joint communiqué from the summit will be issued soon. Earlier media reports said that a draft copy of this joint statement will make no mention of the international ruling.