For nearly two decades, diplomats from Southeast Asian countries and China have met to discuss the implementation of a “code of conduct” for the South China Sea. The goal of that code is to manage the tensions that may arise from disputes between the region’s claimants, including Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, and more recently Indonesia. Back in 2002, they signed the “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” which set the stage for a formal code that was to follow. The declaration’s terms were as narrowly crafted as they were brief. The signatories simply pledged to peacefully settle their differences and “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability.” The declaration gave no indication that the code would seek a resolution to the disputes in the South China Sea, nor require its parties to adhere to its terms.
Still, at the time, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) hailed the declaration as a great accomplishment. It had persuaded China to sign a declaration that would put at risk its international standing should it violate its spirit. Southeast Asian leaders hoped that the declaration would be the first step towards convincing China that multilateral consensus and a focus on economic cooperation are preferable to interstate confrontation, what they refer to as the “ASEAN Way.” But as time has passed, the international environment in which the declaration was hashed out has changed. So too have the “facts on the ground” (or water, as the case may be) in the South China Sea. Together, those changes have made it even harder for the declaration’s signatories to agree on a code of conduct that can deescalate the ongoing tensions in the region, let alone put them to rest.
PEACE IN OUR TIME?
The idea for a code of conduct was hatched by ASEAN in the late 1990s. It arose because of ASEAN’s desire to head off rising tensions in the South China Sea without prompting great-power competition. ASEAN countries well remembered how such competition spawned strife that ravaged Southeast Asia during the Cold War. So, most ASEAN countries were wary of inviting the United States into the region to directly balance China. They also understood how difficult it would be to settle the jumble of conflicting maritime and territorial claims in the disputed waters, given their own divisions and paucity of power. Hence, they believed their best strategy would be to get China to buy into their “ASEAN Way.” And, for a time, it seemed to work. Not only did a reluctant China sign the declaration, but it also joined ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia the following year.
Yet, that hopeful mood was short-lived. By the second half of the decade, the claimants resumed asserting their sovereignty. Malaysia and Indonesia pursued offshore oil exploration; Vietnam encouraged tourism in the Spratly Islands; and China began to reclaim land around its outposts. Eventually, China would reclaim over 3,200 acres of land, nearly 19 times as much as all of the other claimants combined. It would also fortify those outposts with airfields, ports, radars, and other military facilities, despite Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping’s promise to the contrary. Meanwhile, standoffs at sea, mostly between China and other claimant countries, would become more frequent, last longer, and involve larger numbers of ships than ever before.