TOKYO — China has changed tack on a proposed South China Sea code of conduct with Southeast Asian countries, potentially paving the way to exclude rivals, including the U.S. and Japan, from the hotly contested waters.
Initially aimed to curb Beijing’s maritime expansion, the draft code includes language that could bar Washington and Tokyo from maritime development in Southeast Asia, according to information obtained by the Japanese government. They could also be required to obtain advanced approval from China for joint military drills with the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“China’s goal is to tie ASEAN’s hands with rules that are convenient for Beijing, and to eliminate or restrict outside influence on the South China Sea,” a Japanese official said.
The South China Sea is a hotbed of tension in the region. China is engaged in territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and other countries. Beijing has been building artificial islands in the waters since 2014 that are home to military installations, including airstrips and radar towers, triggering a push for a code of conduct to curb such actions.
According to the Japanese government, the draft code does not say whether the document is legally binding, and includes no details on any mechanisms to prevent disputes. The draft also suggests that member nations ban maritime development and joint military drills with companies and countries outside the region.
China had been reluctant to limit its options in the region until May 2017, when it decided to start negotiations for a code of conduct with the ASEAN. A draft was compiled at a foreign ministers’ meeting in August 2018, and the countries announced on July 31 that the first stage of preparations was complete.
In 2002, China and ASEAN signed a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. The document reaffirmed the rule of law and the right of passage through the waters, though it was not legally binding. Japan and the U.S. had hoped that the new code of conduct would bear legal force.
China was pressured into negotiating the new code after the international tribunal at The Hague, Netherlands, deemed China’s actions in the South China Sea to be illegal in July 2016. But it is now turning the code into a diplomatic tool to prevent Japanese and American intervention in the waters.
The code of conduct in the South China Sea “shall conform with international law and not infringe on the legitimate rights and interests of all parties,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said at the East Asia Summit on Nov. 4 in a likely swipe at Beijing.