The 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations or Asean has proposed to set up a hotline to resolve maritime disputes and to ensure communication lines remain open between member countries during a crisis. The Direct Communications Link proposal was unveiled at the Asean defence minister's meeting in Subang, in the outskirts of the capital Kuala Lumpur.
The move to finally set up the hotline, a proposal that was first brought up two years ago, comes as defence ministers continue to grapple with the differences between member countries over how to tackle the South China Sea maritime and territorial spat with China. Several Asean countries are in dispute with China over the South China Sea territory.
The US and Japan are keen to see concerns over the South China Sea be included in a statement to be issued at the end of the third Asean Defence Ministers Meeting together with their counterparts from the US, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and Australia. China, which has been flexing its muscle in the territory, and several other member nations however do not want the issue to be included in the joint declaration.
Malaysia's Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told a news conference following the meeting: "The DCL aims to build confidence and trust and promote rapid response cooperation in times of emergency. Our biggest concern is unintended accidents and unintentional incidents in the high seas."
The hotline proposal was initially brought up by Brunei when the country was the chair of Asean in 2013 and it was subsequently taken up under the framework of the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting. Brunei is one of the four Asean member countries that have disputes over South China Sea. The others are Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
On the issue of freedom of navigation, including in the disputed South China Sea, he said that a number of countries involved were still discussing the matter. "Our meeting will be a good opportunity for Asean countries to continue to engage with our eight dialogue partners on the issue," Hishamuddin said.
External forces should not determine region's future
On the current tense situation in the South China Sea, with he US sending over a naval ship to the area, he said that there was a need for stability and unity among Asean countries to ensure external parties do not determine the region's future.
"I don't welcome anything that can disrupt the stability of the region. This is our region. We cannot allow other parties to determine our future," he said. He highlighted that the South China Sea issue will be discussed by the Asean foreign ministers meeting at the 27th Asean Summit to he held from 18 to 22 November.
The meeting also discussed the possibility of setting up an expert working group on cyber security which would include the dialogue partners. Another issue covered include the growing threat of terrorism. Malaysia also proposed an Asean Militaries Ready Group on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief.