June 25, 2019
It is commendable that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) tries to keep up the hope that one day China will honor and join their initiative to maintain a standard of acceptable and lawful behavior in the South China Sea.
All 20 Asean members are unanimous in their collective resolve to negotiate with China a binding Code of Conduct (COC) in the area. They restated their position even if none of that interest, much less, sense of urgency, is seen on the part of China.
Consequently, the 34th Asean summit of leaders in Bangkok ended at the weekend with more hope than confidence in the conclusion of a COC.
At their Bangkok summit, the member states agreed to work together to keep the region free and secure, and to settle disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law.
The countries also agreed to work toward an effective implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the finalization of a code of conduct in the area, over which the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Brunei have claims, together with China and Taiwan.
That statement is, however, is not new but an iteration of its long standing position on the South China Sea issue we hear about every summit.
It is now more than a decade of stalled negotiations between Asean and China, with respect to a COC that would govern their interactions in the South China Sea.
Over the past two years, since the release of the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Philippines’ case against China, Asean has been more wary than resolute in securing an agreement for the future of the region.
Asean officials claim to have made some progress in the group’s long and difficult journey toward a COC. Yet the agreement announced by the member states is seen falling short of the perceived necessary measures to achieve solid steps forward.
In the Asean Leaders’ Vision Statement on Partnership for Sustainability posted on the association’s website on June 23, the leaders said they have agreed to maintain it “as an area of peace, freedom and security, where differences and disputes are resolved by peaceful means.”
They also said they would maintain Asean’s policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of its member states, adding the region should remain an area “where maritime cooperation is enhanced in accordance with internationally accepted treaties and principles, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
The leaders also reaffirmed the “importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, safety and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea.”
As some will remember, it was back in 2012 that the Asean leaders agreed on a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which included exercising self-restraint in activities that may heighten tensions over maritime disputes in the area.
The leaders said in the declaration that they would work toward full implementation of the COC “and pursue the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law, including the 1982 Unclos, while enhancing mutual trust and confidence.”
And then they pined for “the early conclusion of an effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea,” a document that is seen as more binding than the COC.
This objective has been more aspirational than practicable in Asean. Some states have been proactive in pushing for a COC. Others have tended to speak for China. The Philippines has been privately criticized for being defeatist and seeking its own deal with China.
Significantly, the new Asean statement comes in the same month as the maritime incident involving a Chinese vessel ramming into a Filipino fishing boat near the Recto (Reed) Bank in the West Philippine Sea.
Manila and Beijing favor a joint investigation into the incident, which both sides have described as a simple maritime incident.
The Reed Bank incident could well become a set case for discussion between the parties of the difficult issues that have historically stalled the negotiations.
If President Xi Jinping and President Rodrigo Duterte could lead their governments to surmount the many issues and questions concerning the ramming incident, the COC talks could ironically receive a boost toward reaching the finish line.
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