The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China on Monday announced the start of negotiations for a proposed code of conduct in the South China Sea.
“Leaders of ASEAN and China leaders have agreed to start talks on the Code of Conduct based on the Framework approved by the Foreign Ministers in August,” Foreign Affairs spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said in a statement.
Bolivar said the Philippines will issue a Chairman's Statement for the ASEAN-China Summit to reflect this development.
Negotiations, he added, are likely to commence next year when Singapore takes over the rotating ASEAN chairmanship from the Philippines.
A draft statement earlier seen by GMA News Online on the ASEAN-China meeting hailed as an “important milestone” the adoption last August of the framework for a code of conduct (COC), which will guide the crafting of the document.
The ASEAN common statement on Asean-China Dialogue Relations said leaders are “pleased to announce that as a next step, ASEAN Member States have agreed to officially commence negotiations with China on the COC” and “trust that we will continue this positive momentum and work towards a substantive and effective” code.
A regional code of conduct aims to prevent conflicting territorial claims in the vast, potentially oil-rich region from erupting into violent confrontations or, worse, an economically devastating major conflict. However, efforts to finalize the accord has dragged on for 15 years.
Leaders from ASEAN and China, currently in Manila for a regional meeting hosted by the Philippines where US President Trump, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev are also attending, said they “look forward to an early conclusion” of the code.
“While the situation is calmer now, we cannot take the current progress for granted,” they said in the draft statement.
Calls for an early conclusion of such a code have heightened in recent years due to a series of confrontations between China and its smaller Southeast Asian neighbors with overlapping territorial claims, especially Vietnam and the Philippines. Other claimants include Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Professor Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs, said he sees a “protracted and contentious” process in terms of finalizing a regional code of conduct.
“Unless parties are clear on what they want to do with it, what they want to achieve before they talk to China, it will not move,” he said.
ASEAN has long held the position that the code of conduct must be legally binding, but China opposes this. It's not clear how this fundamental difference will affect progress and pace of future talks on the code.
Dr. Christopher Roberts, associate professor, International and Political Studies, at the University of New South Wales, believes that finalizing a code of conduct in a year or two is “highly questionable.”
“It may help in terms of reducing the scope for inadvertent escalation of hostilities by having this code of conduct, but it is unlikely to do much in terms of reversing the gains that China has already obtained in the region,” Roberts said.
Over the recent years, Beijing has taken a more assertive stance in the tense waters, beefing up its reclamation activities in disputed areas and transformed previously submerged features into artificial islands with multi-level buildings and runways. It has also installed missiles in these areas, triggering concerns from countries, such as the US, Japan and Australia. — BM, GMA News