China sets conditions for a “code of conduct” in South China Sea

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south china sea
A Chinese warship sails in the South China Sea. Image Credit: Xinhua/Kyodo

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated on Sunday that they may start the actual negotiation about the talks for nonaggression pact aimed at preventing clashes form erupting in the disputed South China Sea this year, if outside parties don’t cause a major disruption.

According to Wang, the start of talks for a code of conduct in the disputed waters may be announced by the heads of China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations when they meet at an annual summit in the Philippines in November if Beijing’s conditions are met.

“When the situation in the South China Sea is generally stable, and if there is no major disruption from outside parties as the precondition, then we will consider during the November leaders’ meeting — we will jointly announce — the official start of the COC conversation,” Wang said after meeting with his ASEAN counterparts.

Conditions of the actual negotiation include non-interference by outside parties; referring to the United States which Beijing has frequently accused of meddling in what it says is an Asian dispute that should be resolved only by the countries involved.

“If there is no major disruption from outside parties, with that as the precondition that we will consider during the November leaders’ meeting we will jointly announce the official start of the code of conduct consultation.” Wang said.

Ministers form ASEAN and China have agreed to a framework for launching a code of conduct. Philippine Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Robespierre Bolivar confirmed that ASEAN has accepted China’s three-step proposal on how to proceed but he did not mention any preconditions, beginning with announcement of the adoption of the code’s framework in a joint communique released on Sunday night. This will be followed up with the talks by the end of this month on how negotiations should proceed, and a formal announcement will be made at the ASEAN summit in November.

The acting US Assistant Secretary of State of East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thorton said that the countries locked in the sea disputes should halt provocative moves to foster a diplomatic resolution.

“We think all of the countries in the region should agree that while they have this diplomatic process going on that they would stop improving or expanding or militarizing of their outposts.” Thorton said.

China had long been recognized as delaying negotiations with ASEAN for the maritime code to allow it to start and complete its land reclamation in the South China Sea without any regulatory restrictions. Wang’s mention of the vague conditions can allow China to delay the planned talks for any reason.

Speaking in Manila on July 25, Wang said the more stable environment in the South China Sea was partly due to the diplomatic approached adopted by the Philippines after President Rodrigo Duterte came into office last year. Duterte has taken a much more controversial tack that included successfully petitioning a tribunal set up under the auspices of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in the Netherlands.

China has had robust economic ties with Southeast Asia, a diverse region of more than 600 million people with a combined GDP of $2.4 trillion; both have tangled for years over the territorial conflicts. Tensions rise up alarmingly in recent years over China’s island-building works in one of the most disputed regions, where US and aerial patrols have challenged Beijing’s claims.

A Southeast Asian diplomat said yesterday that Vietnam had pushed for stronger language despite opposition from many of the ministers, whose countries rely heavily on China for trade and investment.

According to the envoys they “took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamation and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”

Although it is not an ASEAN member, China can exert its influence on allies like ASEAN member Cambodia to reject any move it deems contrary to its interests. An unwieldy alliance of democracies, monarchies and authoritarian regimes, the regional grouping decides by consensus, meaning just one member state can shoot down any proposal.

Another diplomat said Cambodian also expressed concern over the ASEAN foreign ministers’ issuance of a separate statement criticizing North Korea’s two ICBM test last month.

While supporters of the ASEAN-China agreement regard it as a belated step forward, some critics say it offers little fundamentally new from the nonbinding and ignored 2002 declaration. The latest framework has not been made public, but leaked document says that the code is “not an instrument to settle territorial disputes or maritime delimitation issue.”

In 1990s, a code of conduct for disputants in the South China Sea was first suggested but the declaration signed in 2002 failed to prevent the parties involved from complicating the situation. Among significant developments, China embarked on large-scale land reclamation in 2012 and has since created seven artificial islands with military and strategic installations.