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Home » ASEAN’s South China Sea Code: Another Room for Great Power Rivalry?

ASEAN’s South China Sea Code: Another Room for Great Power Rivalry?

by Myint Nyan
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he South China Sea is a significant resource-rich waterway that is crisscrossed by coinciding claims from China and several ASEAN members. The geopolitical and socioeconomic importance of the region is highly indispensable to the interests of both littorals and other great powers such as the US and China which know no bound. The code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, however, aims to curtail tensions between the ASEAN countries and China in this region, and allows the littorals to overflight and have freedom of navigation. Although the case of the South China Sea Code has recently grabbed the media spotlight after Indonesia assumed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) chairmanship for the year 2023, the early development of the conduct dates back to 1992 which began with the very first statement of ASEAN on territorial disputes in the SCS.  The parties agreed on the idea of a COC in 1996, and signed ‘the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC)’ in 2002 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and subsequently, adopted draft guidelines in 2011. The principle of the declaration is mainly focused on reducing adversities, ensuring pacific settlements of disputes and practicing self-restraint in the conduct of any military and economic activities.

In order to thwart disputes in the SCS, China and ASEAN have been having discussions for years to develop a Code of Conduct (COC), in other words, a set of regional norms and principles. At the 51st ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Singapore in 2018, Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Singapore, called the Single Draft for the COC a milestone, while the Foreign Minister of China, Wang Yi acclaimed it as a “breakthrough” in the COC negotiations. Wang Yi later stated in July 2019 that “in the past year, China and the ASEAN countries, in accordance with the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC), explored rule-based governance of the South China Sea, actively developed the consultations on the COC in the region, and completed the first reading of the COC Single Draft negotiating text.” However, in 2021, in the midst of several escalating and long-running disputes, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) again exhibited serious intention for drafting the 2021 COC for the South China Sea (SCS). For many years, although several rounds of talks and discussions at the ministerial level have taken place, no palpable development has become competent to reach the finalisation of establishing a regional framework of the SCS code of conduct.

Recent Developments: Will Indonesia Be Able to Finalize the Draft?

China has long been claiming jurisdiction over nearly the whole SCS on the basis of its U-shaped “nine-dash line”. This claim has no legal rationale according to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in 2016. With such current, an acute development has recently been discerned that due to the extensive assertions of Beijing in the resource-rich maritime area of SCS, the Philippines consented to provide the United States with access to its military bases. As in the strategic waterway of the region, Malaysia, Brueni, Vietnam and many other ASEAN countries have similar claims with China over the SCS. Although Indonesia does not have an official claim and a direct linkage to SCS, interestingly, in the North Natuna Sea, China has also been opposing its exploration of oil and gas reserves. As a result, last month, Indonesia sent a warship to the area with a view to monitoring the Chinese coast guard vessel. Therefore, the finalised framework of the common SCS code of conduct based on the consensus of both China and the ASEAN members has been palpable as very crucial to bring a halt to the disputes. In this respect, all the ASEAN members such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and so on are verily craving to finalize a peace accord to dilute the geopolitical cruxes with China.

However, in early February, Indonesia has been honoured as the new chair of the ASEAN forum for 2023 which the country has been leading the COC discussions for years. Indonesia has always been one of those countries that truly want to set up a regional framework of the SCS code of conduct with China. It has recently been discerned that in light of rising tensions in the critical waterway, Indonesia’s foreign minister expressed that the country intends to step up negotiations with China and other Southeast Asian nations to complete a code of conduct (COC) for mitigating the disputes in the South China Sea area. In this regard, the Foreign Minister of Indonesia, Retno Marsudi spoke in Jakarta at the close of the meeting among the foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). She said that ‘the outlook of ASEAN on the Indo-Pacific has been central to the discussion.’ She further mentioned, “we also discussed the COC, the commitment of members to conclude the negotiation of the COC as soon as possible.” Moreover, the Indonesian Foreign Minister uttered that the COC negotiations will take place in Indonesia this year, with the first round beginning in March.

China’s Viewpoint Regarding SCS-COC

Although both ASEAN and China approved the declaration of the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea in 2002, the development of the visionary framework has been stolid and slow for years. In the last few years, China has also been exhibiting its eagerness to set up the COC agreement to lessen the tensions. In May 2022, during the chairmanship of Cambodia, one of the closest allies of China in the region, it was extremely expected that both parties had been making raw endeavours to bolster the COC negotiations. In this regard, last year the Chinese spokesman Zhao Lijian said that ‘building up a COC is stipulated in the DOC and it depicts the common objective, needs and aspiration of both China and ASEAN countries.’ He further illustrated that China is highly optimistic about reaching a COC which would provide the parties with strong assurance of rules and regulations for sustainable solidarity in the South China Sea region.

Moreover, in July 2022, in the same manner, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi ‘pledged to speed up meetings with ASEAN on COC for the South China Sea.’ He guaranteed that China would reinforce consultations on COC and “advocate true multilateralism and advanced open regionalism.” Most importantly, he asserted that ‘China will uphold ASEAN centrality and the ASEAN Regional Cooperation Framework’ and will oppose any confrontation and cold war mentality.’ In this respect, analysts argued that this mindset of China regarding the COC offers an understanding of how the great power is pursuing to counterbalance the contemporary diplomatic offensive of the US in the region. However, apart from the great power rivalry, China is yet to bring about some radical shifts to make COC happen. Many major obstacles still need to be overcome, such as China’s assertion that it has historical authority over 90% of the South China Sea and ASEAN’s protracted divide over maritime conflicts. Regarding this perspective, Joy Batongbacal, the director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, Philippines said that ‘I don’t believe it is possible to develop a complete COC that answers all of the diverse concerns of the claimant countries.’

The U.S. Involvement in SCS-COC: Great Power Rivalry and Interests

The United States of America is still considered the extant dominant power in international politics. One of the grand strategies of the great power is the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) where the country mainly strives to uphold the rules-based international order countering the rise of China in both military and economic terms. As the ASEAN region is deemed the hotbed of great power rivalry, the US has a direct interest in the SCS code of conduct which has been more obvious after the US-ASEAN summit in mid of 2022. During the summit, Kamala Harris, the Vice President of the US hosted a working lunch on maritime security where she accentuated that by stepping up its collaboration with ASEAN coast guards to address challenges like illegal fishing, international organized crime, and—most importantly—freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the United States has committed to ensuring maritime security in the region. The first US-ASEAN Maritime Exercise, however, was conducted in 2019 and along with that many other bilateral agreements have been proliferating for the last few years across the region. In this respect, as a result, the ASEAN navies, the US, European Union and other law enforcement agencies are increasingly boosting their maritime security cooperation.

However, although there are differences in the objectives of China and ASEAN, the close relationship between the US and ASEAN regarding maritime security cooperation will gravely compel China to sketch the final framework of COC. Moreover, this development has long been sending an open message to China that both the US and (its allies in the) ASEAN members uphold a common interest and robust commitment to preserving rules-based order in the SCS region. Despite ASEAN claimants’ obvious intention to safeguard security and peace through COC and to endorse international law in the disputed area, China, on the other hand, wants to keep the disputes only between China and ASEAN claimants and thwart any involvement of the extra-regional powers (the US and Europe) in the areas. Consequently, the framework seems to appear as another hub of great power politics. At the end of the day, while China tries to preserve its domination in the region even with the COC framework, the US would come across with the primary objective of thwarting China’s rise by imposing its version of rules-based international order. Apart from all such arguments, the major question is whether the COC framework will come out as real or it will remain protracted as before.

Source: The GeoPolitics

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