Hope for Code of Conduct on South China Sea
The legally binding document is expected to address reducing the risk of clashes in one of the world’s most strategic maritime territories, writes Rajaram Panda

The oceanic space of the South China Sea (SCS) has emerged as a major flashpoint in the Asia Pacific region as there are several claimants to this disputed maritime territory. Several smaller nations of the ASEAN grouping claim to some parts of the SCS which are in their exclusive economic zones. On the other hand, China claims its sovereignty over this maritime space almost in its entirety. It even rejected the ruling in July 2016 of the international tribunal which ruled that China’s claims lack any historical validity. It has declared the SCS as one of its core interests, along with Tibet and Taiwan.

Over the years, China has been engaged in various activities such as island building, making new fishing zone, even trying to build a nuclear reactor in the SCS with the aim to take control of this ocean space to the exclusion of other claimants.

When the Hague tribunal invalidated in July 2016 most of its claim over the SCS in a case brought by the Philippines, China was enraged. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who had taken office a month before the ruling, downplayed the ruling with a view to improve his country’s relations with China. Despite Duterte’s attempt to mollycoddle ties with China, it protested when Philippines’s defence and military chiefs visited a disputed island in the SCS. The Philippine Government maintained that it owns the territory where Filipino troops and villagers have lived for decades.

In order to achieve its objectives, China has tried and at times succeeded, in creating disunity amongst the ASEAN states. At other times, it has used economic diplomacy to get a certain member state of the grouping into its fold. For example, China took maximum advantage of the Philippines when controversial Duterte took power and willingly tried to reach out to Beijing. According to a recent report, China had even installed rocket launchers on the disputed Fiery Cross Reef in the SCS, though it claims that the facilities would be limited to defensive requirements.