A South China Sea Code of Conduct: Is Real Progress Possible?

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A closer look at steps toward finalizing a long-anticipated Code of Conduct.
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?
 
The concept for a COC first emerged in the 1990s, but disagreements over whether it should be a legally binding document appeared soon after. In particular, China was strongly against any form of legally binding agreement, which would restrict its activities in the South China Sea. ASEAN and China agreed on the non-binding DOC in 2002 as a compromise and interim agreement with the goal to work “towards the eventual attainment of [the COC].” Little substantial progress has been made since then.
 
 

 

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