Commentary: A sober assessment of the recent ‘breakthrough’ on the South China Sea


Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakirishnan called new developments to the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea “yet another milestone”. There’s no room for complacency until the code is agreed upon, says one observer.

Following the adoption of a draft framework on the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea last August, barely a year later, China and the ten Southeast Asian countries of ASEAN agreed this week on a single draft document that will serve as a “living document and the basis of future code of conduct negotiations”.

Describing this new development as “yet another milestone”, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said that the parties arrived at the first draft during talks held a couple of months back in Changsha, China. Besides this single draft text, the 11 foreign ministers also agreed on the key modalities for future rounds of negotiations.

This is certainly a noteworthy development. But it is necessary to look past the fist pumps and delve into the realities.

Of course, the apparent rapid progress since August last year – from adoption of the draft framework to commencement of negotiations in March this year and then agreement of a single draft text this month – gives the impression of all things going well so far.

But is this really so?


True, there has been no more reported incidents of major aerial and maritime standoffs registered since August last year. But it does not mean the concerned parties have truly stopped whatever they have been doing, short of building new artificial islands.

Against the backdrop of regular wargames of varying force size in the South China Sea, Beijing has upped the ante where it comes to boosting its military presence in the area – deploying long-range missiles to the Spratly Islands, landing strategic bombers in the Paracel Islands, and testing electronic jammers in the disputed waters over the past year.