At the recently concluded 31st ASEAN Summit Meetings in Manila, the leaders of ASEAN and China formally announced the start of negotiations on the fine print of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. The agreement comes just three months after the foreign ministers from both sides endorsed the framework on the COC earlier in August.
Recent progress made on the COC is seen by many as a milestone development, in light of the aggressive brinkmanship in the lead-up to the arbitral tribunal ruling in July 2016. Tension certainly appears to have calmed down significantly since, and discussions for the COC have been actively on-going since the meeting of the 19th ASEAN-China Joint Working Group on Implementation of the Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea in February. Compared with the history of strenuous negotiations, the relatively fast pace of recent developments does appear encouraging.
However, with the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) yet to be fully implemented more than a decade after its adoption, one can’t help but wonder how much real progress is achievable with the upcoming negotiations. How different would the COC be from the DOC? Is this another tactic by China to buy time? How united would ASEAN be in negotiating its position vis-à-vis China?