ABSENT this recognition, it has been impossible to move even a millimeter forward discussions on the long proposed Code of Conduct (COC) on the South China Sea between Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and China.
At the annual summit of the Asean in Bangkok, Thailand over the weekend, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang made a number of declarations and revelations that can be utilized to propel forward the repeatedly stalled and uncertain Asean-China COC on the South China Sea.
The much-awaited code, in our estimate, could rise to life if the community takes Premier Li at his word that Beijing is “ready to work” with Southeast Asian nations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea, where, as is well-known, it has been accused of bullying fellow claimants and building military installations.
As is also well-known, China claims most of the resource-rich waterway, a major global shipping route.
Talks on a code of conduct have sputtered for years because of disagreements on various issues between the two sides.
The COC, which is projected to be finished in 2021, will set out the guidelines for conduct in the sea region along with conflict resolution parameters.
Last Sunday, during the Asean-China dialogue, Premier Li issued China’s “ready to work” declaration.
At first glance, the words sound very reassuring and indicative of how China has come around to fully addressing the rival claims of several Asean members to portions of the South China Sea and including these in a code of conduct with its neighbors on the disputed waters.
After calling the proposed code “a very important landmark,” Li said: “We stand ready to work with Asean countries building on the existing foundation and the basis to strive for new progress on the guidelines.”
He added that China wanted to “maintain and uphold long-term peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
He glossed over the tensions that have flared between China and rival claimants, particularly Vietnam, and the charges that China has been bullying its neighbors concerning their desire to exploit reserves and resources in the SCS, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) treaty.
But then Li flatly declared: “We hesitated and did far less than we should have,” referring to China’s disputes with Vietnam and the Philippines in the waterway.
Really? Does this mean that China wanted to do more than just build its artificial islands and fortifications in the waterway? Does this presage an even more aggressive effort by China to prevent Asean claimants from utilizing their rights in the disputed sea.
With these qualifications, there appears to be little reason to believe that the COC project has moved appreciably forward during the Asean’s Bangkok summit.
The thorny issue will continue over the fact that five Asean countries — Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines — have real claims and entitlements to portions of the South China Sea that abut their national territory under Unclos, and that China on the other hand is claiming the entire South China Sea as part of its sovereign territory. Beijing is not content with its own exclusive economic zone (EEZ) under Unclos, to which it is also a signatory.
In Bangkok, Asean leaders ought to frankly ask China’s representatives in the Asean-China dialogue: “Does China recognize or respect the EEZs of Asean member countries? Does China accept its own EEZ under Unclos?
This in our view will test the depth and extent of China’s regard and respect for the interest and concerns of its neighbor, the Asean regional community of nations and its over 600 million people.