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China expected to push for maritime code to cover South China Sea at Asean talks

China will push for endorsement at the Asean summit of a mechanism to avoid potential maritime clashes, a leading mainland think tank said, as regional leaders try to find ways to address the South China Sea dispute.

Although the contested waters are expected to be discussed at the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which kicked off in Vientiane in Laos on Tuesday, diplomats said they did not expect any breakthroughs.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived on Tuesday night and was due to meet senior Laotian officials before attending the summit.

But there were no plans for him to meet Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, officials from Manila said.

Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, a think tank affiliated with the Chinese government, said Beijing was expected to push for adoption of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea. Chinese and Southeast Asian senior officials would also set up a hotline to manage maritime emergencies in the disputed waters.

Tensions in the region have escalated following a July ruling by a tribunal that rejected China’s historic claims to the waters, which has led to an increased deployment of government and fishing vessels, heightening the risk of confrontation.

Chinese and Asean officials agreed last month to make progress towards adopting a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea.

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In his talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday, Duterte said disputes in the area should be resolved through peaceful means. He also said Manila would maintain dialogue with Beijing following the ruling, Kyodo reported. Ernesto Abella, Duterte’s spokesman, said the Philippines wished to ease bilateral tensions. “The president’s position has always been clear that he hoped for a soft landing,” Abella said. “There will be time to speak on certain matters, but as it is, it’s basically maintaining the diplomatic relationship.”

Ties between Beijing and Manila soured after Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino took the dispute to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013. Things improved after Duterte assumed office, with his special envoy Fidel Ramos visiting Hong Kong to meet Wu and other officials .

Abella said a bilateral meeting between Li and Duterte on the sidelines of the summit was “not on the schedule”. Wu said he would not be surprised if they didn’t meet, given the magnitude of the problem and the limited time the forum offered.

Chen Gang, a senior researcher at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, said Li was expected to promote the One Belt, One Road initiative, and a China-Asean free-trade agreement.

“Laos is considered pro-Beijing and is hosting the Asean summit. The Philippines and Myanmar have new leaders who are relatively mild over the South China Sea dispute, so the incentive for tension is diminished,” he said.

Additional reporting by Kristin Huang