The diplomatic push that China has made at recent regional gatherings highlights its efforts to revitalize regional trust and confidence following recent tensions in the South China Sea. But the real work that China should begin is the quick completion of the Code of Conduct between ASEAN and China in the South China Sea.
Chinese President Xi Jinping seemed to be extending an olive branch at the 22nd APEC Summit in Beijing. The Economist noted his desire for better relations, in particular with the U.S., Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. In addition, when Xi pledged $40 billion for the Silk Road Infrastructure Fund in order to improve its economic links and connectivity across Asia, countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, Pakistan and Tajikistan were found to be hopeful. Meanwhile at the East Asia Summit in Naypyidaw, (Myanmar), Chinese Premier Li Keqiang proposed a friendship treaty with Southeast Asian nations, a defense hotline, and offered $20 billion in loans. Notably, before departing to Myanmar he wrote for The Jakarta Post, proposing to make next year the “Year of China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation.”
The diplomatic choreography that China has performed can plausibly be explained as an endeavor to ease the threat perception caused by its assertiveness in territorial and maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas. Unilateral proposals alone, however, are not effective in addressing this threat perception. As ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh said in an interview with The VOA “We have seen a widening gap between political commitments and actual actions – I mean the real situation at sea. And that is the challenge we have to overcome,” China needs to back up these initiatives with stronger efforts to conclude the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea as quickly as possible. Why?