The Next Big Energy Standoff Will Happen Here


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China have agreed on a so-called single working text to continue negotiations for a Code of Conduct (COC) in the disputed South China Sea.

“I am pleased to announce yet another milestone in the COC process,” said Vivian Balakrishnan on Thursday, Singapore’s foreign minister, who is hosting the meeting of regional leaders.

They have also agreed on the “key modalities” for future rounds of negotiations, he said in opening remarks at the ASEAN-China Ministerial Meeting, one of several related meetings held alongside the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Singapore this week.

Balakrishnan said that the single draft negotiating text will be the basis for future COC negotiations and a living document, which means it will be continually edited and updated as needed. He added that ASEAN and China settled on the negotiating text in June when both sides held talks in Changsha in China’s Hunan province

Both sides hailed the development and said that COC negotiations will accelerate.

Premature celebration

However, any celebrations that this is a major breakthrough should be carefully examined. ASEAN members have been trying to persuade China for several years to agree to a COC, which merely sets force non-enforceable rules on how each party should conduct itself in the South China Sea.

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As far back as July 2012, China said it was open to launching negotiators over the COC. However, the same year China seized and took possession of Scarborough Shoal, which clearly lies within the Philippines’ (an ASEAN member) UN-mandated 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Since 2012, China has mostly waffled at agreeing to a COC, as it continued to develop installations on reefs and islets in the South China Sea, including putting in place military assets, in an obvious attempt to militarize and control the area. The South China Sea includes shipping lanes that send vital crude oil, liquefied natural gas (LNG) and other goods to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

The fact that China, the master at delaying tactics, has agreed to a working text on a COC after several years of artificial island building is disingenuous at best. Moreover, a formal and completed COC is still likely many years away, allowing China even more time to continue its building in the area.

China’s South China Sea actions has also set Beijing and Washington on a potential collision course as the US navy continues to send what it calls “freedom of navigation voyages” near China’s disputed claims. Angst over China’s moves have also caused the US, Japan, India and Australia to work together to find ways to challenge Beijing’s South China Sea assertions. However, at the end of the day, occasional naval voyages pale in comparison to actual infrastructure and military assets already in place.

Going forward, it appears that China will remain unchecked in its claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea, referred to as its nine-dash line, at the dismay of rival claimants in the body of water: Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia.