A series of high-level ASEAN meetings culminated in Suzhou, China on September 15, when senior officials from the forum for the first time met to formally discuss the possibility of a code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea. According to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the meeting ended positively, with an agreement to seek “gradual progress and consensus through consultations,” though no deadlines or details about the joint working group that will carry out the task were made available.
It is likely that the development is an attempt by Beijing to woo ASEAN once again, given the skepticism among member countries towards China in recent years. Most media reports from ASEAN countries reflect the national disbelief that China is indeed keen on creating a COC in a timely manner. Singapore-based Channel News Asia, for example, reported on the meeting under the headline “Beijing open to code of conduct in South China Sea, but not now,” suggesting that China still seemed more comfortable bringing up the issue bilaterally than in multinational forums. The sole exception was the Thai media, which claimed that the ball had been set rolling for a speedy resolution and quickly suggested that as the coordinator of China-ASEAN relations, Thailand is the only nation poised to act as a “tough broker” – more so because of its non-claimant nature in the dispute. Even the Chinese state-owned media – the People’s Daily – bracketed the COC issue with past violations of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), suggesting that a new, binding code would be meaningless if earlier agreements were not upheld.