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U.S. State Secretary Rex Tillerson, left, passes by the table of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the start of the 7th East Asia Summit Foreign Ministers' Meeting and its dialogue partners as part of the 50th ASEAN Ministerial Meetings in Manila, Philippines August 7, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron Favila/Pool(reuters_tickers)
By Manuel Mogato and Christian Shepherd
MANILA (Reuters) - Australia, Japan and the United States on Monday urged Southeast Asia and China to ensure that a South China Sea code of conduct they have committed to draw up will be legally binding and said they strongly opposed "coercive unilateral actions".
The Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China should establish a set of rules that were "legally binding, meaningful, effective, and consistent with international law", the foreign ministers of the three countries said in a statement following a meeting in Manila.
Foreign ministers of ASEAN and China on Sunday adopted a negotiating framework for a code of conduct, a move they hailed as progress but seen by critics as a tactic to buy China time to consolidate its maritime power.
Australia, Japan and the United States also "voiced their strong opposition to coercive unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions".
They urged claimants to refrain from land reclamation, construction of outposts and militarization of disputed features, a veiled reference to China's expansion of its defence capability on Mischief, Fiery Cross and Subi reefs in the Spratly archipelago.
The three countries are not claimants but have long been vocal on the issue, arguing their interest is in ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight.
They urged China and the Philippines to abide by last year's international arbitration ruling, which invalidated China's claim to almost the entire South China Sea, where more than $3 trillion worth of sea-borne goods passes every year.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have competing claims there.
The code framework is an outline for what China and ASEAN call "consultations" on a formal agreement, which could start later this year.
Several ASEAN countries want the code to be legally binding, enforceable and have a dispute resolution mechanism. But experts say China will not allow that and ASEAN may end up acquiescing to what amounts to a gentlemen's agreement.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said there was a "sharp contrast" in perceptions this year between regional and non-regional countries, and the statement by Japan, the United States and Australia showed that.
Coastal countries had "fully recognised the progress we have made through concerted efforts from all parties", he said.
"On the other hand, some non-regional countries remain in the past ... They are not recognising the positive changes occurring in the South China Sea.
"Is it that some countries do not want to see greater stability in the South China Sea?" he asked.
Singapore's foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, said on Sunday it was premature to conclude the outcome of the negotiations, but added: "Surely when we move into the COC, it has got to have some additional or significant legal effect."
Jay Batongbacal, an expert on the South China Sea at the University of the Philippines, told news channel ANC the adoption of the framework gave China "the absolute upper hand" in terms of strategy, because it will be able to decide when the negotiating process can start.
China also called out "some countries" who voiced concern over island reclamation in the South China Sea in the joint communique issued by ASEAN members on Sunday.
"In reality it was only one or two country's foreign ministers who expressed concerns of this kind," Wang told reporters.
Wang said that China had not carried out reclamation for two years. "At this time, if you ask who is carrying out reclamation, it is definitely not China - perhaps it is the country that brings up the issue that is doing it," he added.
Several ASEAN diplomats told Reuters that Vietnam was one country that had pushed for stronger wording in the statement. Satellite images have shown that Vietnam has carried out reclamation work in two sites in the disputed seas in recent years.
(Additional reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Nick Macfie and Pritha Sarkar)