China and Southeast Asian countries that dispute sovereignty over a strategic Asian sea aim to speed up talks toward a code of conduct that would lower the risk of accidents and help keep the U.S. government out of the fray.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said his country and a bloc of Southeast Asian states will “speed up” talks on a code of conduct in the South China Sea, Beijing’s state-run China Daily reported March 8. Wang told reporters days later the talks were “gathering pace under a clear road map.”
That goal should mean a 2020 signing date — ahead of an earlier Chinese forecast of 2021 — for the agreement aimed at guiding ships away from mishaps in the vast, crowded South China Sea, some analysts believe.
China resents the U.S. Navy for passing ships through the sea, where Beijing has a military and technological advantage over the four Southeast Asian countries that also claim parts of it. An early signing of the code would show Washington that Beijing can work with its neighbors without U.S. influence, scholars say.
“If there’s no United States, the Chinese won’t say that the code of conduct is a must-have document,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate with the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, D.C.
“With a code of conduct, the Chinese could tell the Americans that ‘we already have a deal, and there’s no reason for you to get involved and whatever we do is between me, China, and them, Southeast Asian countries,’” she said.
Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam claim all or parts of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea that’s prized for fisheries, shipping lanes and fossil fuel reserves. China has alarmed the others since 2010 by building artificial islands for military installations.
Washington, which counts some of the other states as allies, stepped up naval patrols of the sea in 2017 to monitor Chinese activity there.