Archive | Code of Conduct

ASEAN Summits 2017: A Common Agreement Needed for South China Sea Issues? – Khuong Nguyen & Tri Vo | Futura Institute

11 September 2017

Khuong Nguyen & Tri Vo | Futura Institute – For a long time, China has used a variety of political, diplomatic, economic and commercial pressures to influence public opinion in countries to not internationalize internationalizing the South China Sea issue.[1]

For ASEAN countries that are directly involved in the South China Sea dispute, China imposes its views and attempted to drive changes in viewpoint in these countries through bilateral negotiation or avoidance of mentioning about the subject matter in ASEAN conferences and dialogs.[2] In so doing, China has indeed achieved some success evidenced by changes and adjustments in the International Relations policy of the Philippines, views of some Cambodian and Lao leaders…

The Senior Officials’ Meeting (SOM) of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF)
took place in Manila, the Philippines. Hanoi Times

In 2017, at the Conference of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on 20-21st February 2017[3], the 30th ASEAN Summit on 26-29th April[4], and the Senior Officials Meeting – ASEAN SOM on 22nd May[5], apart from talking about measures to demonstrate determination towards building a community of solidarity, ASEAN leaders also paid special attention to the South China Sea issue.

Most leaders have expressed their concerns about recent developments in the South China Sea that have caused increased tensions, directly affecting the security of the Asia-Pacific region. At the same time, the need to continue to strengthen measures to alleviate tensions in the region by promoting confidence, restraint, and lack of action also complicates the situation. The point is to resolve all disputes by peaceful means, on the basis of respect for the diplomatic and legal process, not to use or threaten the use of force, in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. ASEAN leaders have also stressed the importance of fully implementing the DOC Declaration, pushing the efforts of ASEAN and China to reach agreement on the COC framework for the year. 2017 proceeds to sign and put the COC into operation.

At these conferences, high ranking officials of Vietnam expressed their high consensus on the discussion topics among ASEAN countries, while highlighting the role of the Block as a whole and that of each member states in applying the basic principles and shared positions adopted at conferences to contribute to the upholding of peace, stability, security, and safety in the South China Sea.

It is expected that at ASEAN conferences from now until the end of 2017, ASEAN members and the Philippines will reach an agreement to take on the South China Sea issue in their official agenda. In particular, focus will be placed upon solutions to achieve signing and implementation of the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea (COC) with China which, according to geopolitical experts, is internationally binding and signifies an important milestone in the process of retaining peace, stability, security, and air travel and sea travel safety in the South China Sea. Without a mutual consensus of the Block on the way forward, immense challenge is still ahead.

REFERENCES:

[1] China’s Dangerous Game. The Atlantic. November 2014.

[2]China’s Curious South China Sea Negotiation Policy. The Diplomat. June 2016.

[3]Press Release by the Chairman of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat (AMM Retreat). ASEAN. February 2017.

[4]ASEAN Declaration on the Role of Civil Service as a Catalyst for Achieving the ASEAN Community Vision 2025. ASEAN. April 2017.

[5]ASEAN Regional Forum meeting discussed in SOM. Hanoi Times. May 2017.

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Vietnam challenges China at security talks | The Sun Daily

06 August 2017

The Sun Daily – MANILA: Vietnam urged other Southeast Asian nations to take a stronger stand against Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea on Saturday, as a tense regional security forum began with North Korea also under fire over its nuclear programme.

(L-R) Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, Myanmar’s Minister of State of Foreign Affairs U Kyaw Tin, Thailand’s Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai, Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, Philippines’ Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Brunei’s Foreign Minister Lim Jock Seng, Cambodia’s Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Laos’ Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith and Asean Secretary-General Le Luong Minh join hands for a family photo during the opening ceremony of the 50th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Manila on Aug 5, 2017. — AFP

Ahead of the launch of the annual gathering of foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Vietnam made a bold play against China with a raft of suggested changes to a planned joint communique.

It set the stage for a fiery few days of diplomacy in the Philippine capital, with the top diplomats from China, the United States, Russia and North Korea to join their Asean and other Asia-Pacific counterparts for security talks from Sunday.

The meetings will take place as the United Nations Security Council votes this weekend on a US-drafted resolution to toughen sanctions against North Korea to punish the isolated regime for its missile tests.

The United States said it would also seek to build unified pressure on the North at the Manila event – known as the Asean Regional Forum.

After their own day of meetings on Saturday, Asean foreign ministers released a joint statement expressing “grave concerns” over the North’s first two intercontinental ballistic missile tests that were conducted last month.

“These developments seriously threaten peace, security and stability in the region and the world,” the statement said.

But on the South China Sea dispute – one of Asia’s other top powder keg issues – there was far less consensus with the Philippines seeking to placate Beijing, and Vietnam leading the resistance, diplomats told AFP.

Vietnam on Friday night sought to insert tough language against China in an Asean statement that was scheduled to be released after the Southeast Asian ministers wrapped up their own talks on Saturday.

According to a copy of a draft obtained by AFP, Vietnam lobbied for Asean to express serious concern over “construction” in the sea, a reference to China’s ramped up building of artificial islands in the disputed waters in recent years.

Vietnam also wanted Asean to insist in the statement that a planned code of conduct for the sea with China be “legally binding”, which Beijing opposes.

Malaysia also pushed for some tougher language, including with a reference to “military assets” in the contested waters, according to the draft and discussions with diplomats involved in the discussions.

Tense talks

China claims nearly all of the strategically vital sea, including waters approaching the coasts of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

China has in recent years expanded its presence in the sea by building the artificial islands, which are capable of holding military bases.

The Philippines used to be the most vocal critic of Beijing’s expansionism.

But, since President Rodrigo Duterte was elected last year, the Philippines has sought to downplay the dispute with China in return for billions of dollars in Chinese investments and aid.

China has in recent years also successfully lobbied other Asean nations, particularly Cambodia, to support its diplomatic manoeuvring in the dispute.

The joint statement that was scheduled to be released after the Asean ministers was delayed because of the dispute over the wording on the sea issue, one diplomat told AFP.

“There is no consensus yet,” the diplomat said, adding the drafting committee was tasked with continuing the negotiations on Saturday night.

Asean is on Sunday set to adopt a framework with China for a code of conduct, which is meant to pave the way for more concrete action.

But security analysts point out that the framework comes 15 years after negotiations on the issue first began, and China has used that time to cement its claims with the artificial islands.

Another pressing issue in Manila will be the growing terrorism threat in the region.

The event is taking place as Philippine security forces battle Islamic State-aligned gunmen who have since May been occupying parts of Marawi, the nation’s main Muslim city about 800 kilometres (500 miles) to the south of Manila.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is also set to meet Duterte on the sidelines of the event, with those talks expected to cover the Philippine president’s controversial drug war that has claimed thousands of lives. — AFP

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Will a China-ASEAN South China Sea Code of Conduct Really Matter? – Prashanth Parameswaran | The Diplomat

05 August 2017

by Prashanth Parameswaran | The Diplomat – As we hear an agreement being talked up, it’s worth being clear about what it means.

Image Credit: Indonesia Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs

Ahead of the next round of Asian summitry led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) set for Manila later this week, reports have surfaced that, as expected, ASEAN countries and China will endorse a framework on the code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea that had first been agreed to in May.

Even though we ought to recognize any amount of diplomatic progress, however small, when it comes to the contentious South China Sea disputes, we also need to keep things in perspective by asking: what does the so-called ASEAN-China draft framework on a code of conduct in the South China Sea actually mean, and to what extent does it matter?

Three main things are clear in this respect: there is no real meaningful breakthrough between Southeast Asian states and Beijing on the South China Sea; there is no real code of any kind to speak of; and even if this agreement is built out, evidence suggests it will do little to regulate actual Chinese conduct in the maritime realm.

In other words, the draft framework as it stands now, and even an eventual, concluded COC for that matter, may not really matter that much if the past is any guide to how the future will play out.

No Real China-ASEAN Breakthrough

First, there is no real breakthrough between China and ASEAN states on the South China Sea. Instead, what we have seen thus far is more of the same.

China’s trumpeting of a new “cooling down” period in the South China Sea is nothing new. It is consistent with its tendency to calibrate its maritime assertiveness between coercive actions to enforce its extensive claims and periods of charm to consolidate gains it has made and to manage the losses it has incurred with ASEAN states, major powers, and the international community (See: “Will China Change its South China Sea Conduct in 2015?”). Or, as one Southeast Asian official in an ASEAN claimant state put it to me much more darkly in a candid conversation last summer, “like an abusive husband” with the repeated cycles of hits and makeups.

It is no coincidence, for instance, that China only conceded to a non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in 2002 after it had executed the first seizure of a feature from an ASEAN member state (Mischief Reef from the Philippines in 1995) and had tested the resolve of Southeast Asian states as well as Washington and encountered more pushback than expected.

Similarly, China is now playing up this “cooling down” period after both completing its island-building activities and sensing that a number of fortuitous events – most notably the weakening of the Philippine South China Sea position under Rodrigo Duterte – gives it a way to “turn a page” (to borrow a favorite phrase among Chinese officials over the past year) from the humiliating defeat in last year’s arbitral tribunal ruling (See: “Beware the Illusion of ASEAN-China South China Sea Breakthroughs”).

Meanwhile, Beijing has shown no signs of departing from its decades-long goal in the South China Sea: to acquire the capabilities and to undertake calibrated actions that will allow it to eventually enforce its extensive (and now unlawful) claims in the South China Sea at others’ expense while not entirely alienating neighboring states and jeopardizing its rise.

China’s construction of military facilities on the Spratly Islands has continued, along with other familiar sorts of behavior such as the coercion of other claimant states (most notably Vietnam on energy exploitation) and pressure on other regional and extraregional states not to “interfere.” Meanwhile, Chinese leaders continue to restate, as President Xi Jinping did this week at his speech during the 90th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), that China will not cede an inch of territory, a rather unhelpful stance as it only hypes up nationalist sentiment at home and makes agreements like joint development harder to strike abroad.

We are seeing more of the same from ASEAN states as well. Beyond the diplomatic niceties, claimant countries and interested parties, to varying degrees and though still being aware of their limitations relative to China and the divisions within ASEAN, continue to speed up their own unilateral, bilateral, and minilateral steps to safeguard their interests while acceding to the slow progress in the multilateral realm that Beijing has agreed to.

There is no doubt that Duterte’s seemingly sudden about-face on the South China Sea during the Philippines’ ASEAN chairmanship, and, to a lesser degree, other factors as well like the uncertainty over the U.S. role under President Donald Trump, have combined to water down the degree of ASEAN consensus for now (though, as I have pointed out previously, this tends to ebb and flow because of the divided nature of the grouping). (See: “The Truth About Duterte’s ASEAN South China Sea Blow”).

But the steps we have seen from individual Southeast Asian states of late, be it Indonesia’s recent announcement of the North Natuna Sea designation, Vietnam’s attempt at furthering energy exploitation earlier this year, or even for that matter Malaysia’s hardening rhetoric and tougher enforcement against maritime encroachments even as Prime Minister Najib Razak continues to engage Beijing economically, illustrate that we are far from any kind of ASEAN-China understanding or cooling down period of any sort (See: “Beware the Illusion of South China Sea Calm”).

No Real Code of Conduct

Second, there is not yet any meaningful code of any kind to speak of.

The so-called draft framework for a COC is a continuation of a quarter century of “agreeing to disagree” between ASEAN and China on some form of binding framework to regulate conduct in the South China Sea. In that time, a 1992 ASEAN declaration was ignored by China; the quest for a binding COC among some Southeast Asian states in the mid to late 1990s was eventually watered down to a non-binding DOC in 2002; and China has since then been dragging its feet on a binding COC up till recently, with the draft framework introduced this May.

Considering that we are now a quarter century into discussing a framework on the South China Sea and 15 years have passed since the DOC, the draft framework is quite simply an embarrassment. The working version that I had seen was essentially a skeletal one-page outline, consisting of a series of bland principles and provisions, some of which China has already violated, and a few operational clauses – the ones that ought to be the focus of a meaningful, binding COC of any sort – that have been left vague.

Southeast Asian officials familiar with the issue and ongoing discussions no doubt realize that this all amounts to very little substantively. Though there have been a series of sobering analogies I have heard in the region, my favorite came from one diplomat from an ASEAN claimant state at the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this year, who said that this was the equivalent of submitting a table of contents to an editor years after a much-delayed manuscript was expected and then attempting to pass that off as progress.

Of course, this is at least a start, and ASEAN countries and China have been clear that this is a framework to build on, rather than a final document. But that misses the point. The issue is the extent to which diplomatic progress achieved in regulating the conduct of claimants and other relevant actors in the South China Sea is keeping pace with the changing facts on the water, primarily driven by Beijing’s actions.

The past quarter century has shown that the former has proceeded glacially while the latter has advanced blazingly, to the benefit of China and at the expense of other ASEAN claimant states and interested parties like the United States who have a stake in the issue as well. The draft framework does not even come close to changing that grim reality, and it will take a lot more work before it does.

No Real Regulation of Behavior

Third and finally, even if a draft framework is built out and we eventually do see a COC concluded in the distant future, the reality is that it is unlikely to actually help regulate China’s behavior in the South China Sea.

The past quarter-century has shown that China has not just been blatant about its foot-dragging on future commitments, but is equally unafraid to flout commitments it has already made in order to realize its goal of acquiring capabilities and undertaking actions to eventually enforce its extensive claims in the South China Sea at others’ expense.

Even as China continues to call for the full implementation of the DOC – mostly as a delaying tactic to stall the negotiation of a binding COC – it has itself violated the DOC through various actions including land reclamation activities. Other indicators, from Xi’s violation of his pledge in Washington not to militarize the Spratlys to Beijing’s reluctance to comply with the binding arbitral tribunal ruling, also do not inspire confidence in this regard.

Nor, by the way, do the artful diplomatic dodges and endless legal loopholes that Chinese officials and scholars, along with their proponents, continue to use. To seasoned observers, this is nothing more than duplicity under the guise of intellectual masturbation.

Some continue to hope for future shifts in China’s position in this respect, be it an eventual clarification of the notorious nine-dash line or a gradual acceptance of binding frameworks. But that (seemingly endless) wait misses the point. The issue is not whether the extent of Chinese compliance will evolve at all, but whether it will evolve to a degree that will keep pace with the facts on the water.

So far, what we have seen instead is that the elusive quest to regulate Chinese behavior (or to get Beijing to regulate its own behavior) has been vastly overtaken by the facts on the water. If this continues to be the case, even if we eventually get a binding and meaningful COC, it would have been rendered meaningless because Beijing would essentially have de facto control of the South China Sea by then.

Philippine Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, a shrewd South China Sea observer, has been warning that even as the focus is on getting to Beijing to agree on a COC, we should not discount a scenario where China eventually does agree to do this, along with further steps like a freeze by all claimant states on island-building, reclamation, and militarization — once it achieves its objective of assuming control of the South China Sea through steps like reclaiming Scarborough Shoal and developing the capabilities for an effective, enforceable (and perhaps undeclared) air defense identification zone (ADIZ).

In other words, China may indeed accede to the COC once it succeeds in achieving its goal in the South China Sea. And by that time, a COC will not really matter much.

Even as we acknowledge the incremental progress — real or imagined — being touted in the diplomatic realm on the South China Sea disputes between Southeast Asian states and Beijing, these broader realities as important to keep in mind.

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South China Sea disputes: A review of ASEAN’s critical roles – Khuong Nguyen & Tri Vo | SEAS Issues

31 May 2017

Editorial Board: After years of efforts, May 18, China and ASEAN annonced an agreement on a draft framework for the code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea disputes. Experts observed the limited basic elements of the COC without any constraint-based rules in this draft. SEAS Issues presents a review by Prof. Khuong Nguyen and Dr. Tri Vo on ASEAN’s roles in the dispute settlement.

by Khuong Nguyen & Tri Vo | SEAS Issues – The South China Sea (Bien Dong or East Sea in Vietnamese/Western Sea in the Philippines) is situated in the Pacific Ocean, covering an area of 3,448,000 square kilometres. It is surrounded by 9 countries (including China, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam) and a territory (Taiwan). The South China Sea has an important geopolitical location, and carries strategic importance in terms of politics, economics, maritime transport, environment, national security and defence not only for the contiguous nations in the Asia-Pacific but also for the rest of the world. The South China Sea has rich and diverse natural resources, enabling life activities and economic development, especially fishery resources, mineral resources and tourism potential. The South China Sea lies on the arterial route linking the Pacific Ocean – the Indian Ocean – Europe – Asia – the Middle East. Cargo traffic through the South China Sea accounts for 45% of the total value of shipping worldwide. In accordance with international law, the South China Sea is part of the national defence strategy of a number of coastal nations in particular and of ASEAN, with an aim to avoid acts that threaten security and ensure the general stability in the region and worldwide.

In order to ensure harmonization of interests and build a united, solidary group promoting regional development programs, ASEAN has been taking steps to play a role in solving disagreements among nations in the South China Sea.

The first official declaration by ASEAN on the South China Sea issue entitled “1992 ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea” was a milestone marking ASEAN’s interest. Since then, the South China Sea issue has become a central theme in ASEAN’s agenda, such as the development of values and customs, maritime security, defence cooperation and conflict prevention. The South China Sea is a key topic for ASEAN to engage in regional security dialogues with other countries such as the United States, Japan and India, and key terms such as “maritime security” and “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea” (UNCLOS) has been appeared several times in related official statements.

The South China Sea theme has become an important part of the dialogues and consultations between ASEAN and China. In 1996, ASEAN issued a communiqué endorsed “a regional code of conduct in the South China Sea which will lay the foundation for lone term stability in the area and foster understanding among claimant countries”. But China refused a such legal-based document with the reason that China and ASEAN has signed already “ASEAN-China Cooperation Towards the 21st Century“. In 2002, with determination and effort between ASEAN and China, the two sides agreed to sign the “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea”, abbreviated as the DOC. This was the most significant agreement that ASEAN and China have reached regarding the South China Sea, and it is considered as a breakthrough in ASEAN-China relations which contributes significantly to the maintenance of peace and stability in the area.

In 2010, as a rotating Chairman of ASEAN, a country with direct disputes in the South China Sea, Vietnam and other countries issued a joint declaration containing 56 points on all areas of cooperation, which mentioned the declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).

In 2012, ASEAN made its own declaration on 6 points about the South China Sea issue: (i) Fully implement the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea; (ii) Propose guidelines for the implementation of the DOC 2011; (iii) Soon achieve the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea – COC; (iv) Fully respect the fundamental principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); (v) All parties continue to control themselves and not to use violence; (vi) Peacefully settle disputes on the basis of the fundamental principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In 2015, at the annual ASEAN Summit in Malaysia, in addition to the dialogues and regional cooperation centred on ASEAN, the South China Sea issue was also a subject that ASEAN Ministers of Foreign Affairs paid special attention to. In 2017 in the Philippines, the issue of the South China Sea was mentioned in a joint announcement in view of the militarization and development in the area. At the same time, the Philippine ASEAN Chairman pledged that maritime disputes, the drafting of the Code of Conduct for Parties in the South China Sea (COC), would be discussed at the ASEAN summit and between ASEAN and China.

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Heads of the delegations to the 16th ASEAN Summit, opened in Hà Nội on April 8, 2010, stand for a group photo – Photo: VGP/Nhật Bắc

Regarding the South China Sea and China – the South East Asia countries Relations: Disputes over sovereignty over the South China Sea, including disputes over the islands and waters, occurred after World War II. Initially, countries disputed over the strategic position of the South China Sea. After the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982 provided for “Special Economic Zones”, the importance of resource extraction, particularly fishing and oil and gas extraction became additional reasons for disputes over sovereignty.

The South China Sea dispute critically escalated when China brought the HD-981 rig and more than 80 escorts into Vietnam’s Special Economic Zone in May 2014. Since then, China has stepped up its activities, expressing the desire to dominate almost the entire South China Sea. This is shown by the fact that China has declared the ownership of the “Nine Dash Line” which claims almost 80% of the South China Sea area, built and renovated islands, including submerged islands, floating islands, built infrastructures, airport runway, seaports for Chinese fishing vessels, formed the administrative unit of the so-called “Sansha city”, organized tourism activities to visit the illegally occupied islands, regulated the area fishery ban on other countries, and has been ready to confront, pick fight with other fishing vessels in the area. The acts of China have created tension throughout the region, with strong backlashes from the countries that are directly in disputes and the international community.

The northern section of China’s outpost on Cuarteron Reef, as of January 24, 2016 (Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative, https://amti.csis.org/another-piece-of-the-puzzle/)

In relations with ASEAN, China has sought to put pressure on ASEAN to avoid the regional cooperation against them. In fact, in recent years, China has stepped up its policy of improving bilateral relations with ASEAN countries to ease tensions in the South China Sea. At the same time, it used its economic power by committing major economic investment and projects to exert pressure on the countries with less benefits in the South China Sea, to cause conflicts between internal ASEAN members on the issue of the South China Sea, as well as to avoid mentioning the South China Sea issue in ASEAN’s annual statement.

In the face of escalating tensions, the disputed Southeast Asian nations have relied on ASEAN as a mediator to resolve disputes between China and its member countries. The agreements between ASEAN and China include the commitments to inform each other of any military action in the disputed area, and to avoid building new infrastructures on the islands. China and ASEAN also conducted negotiations to create a code of conduct with an aim to ease tensions over the disputed islands, and to unite the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). ASEAN and China has been made joint efforts to formulate a framework for the Code of Conduct for Parties in the South China Sea (COC).

Despite its efforts, the role of ASEAN in addressing the South China Sea issue seems limited, with the lack of unity between some countries on viewpoints as well actions due to differing national interests. Nevertheless, over the past years, ASEAN has been actively participating in addressing the tensions in the South China Sea, contributing to safeguard the overall interests of the region, building solidarity and strengthening mutual trust in ASEAN.

Khuong Nguyen and Tri Vo are members of the Association of Vietnamese Scientists and Experts (AVSE) and BDTP research group, which are both non-for-profit organizations. The ideas expressed in this article are entirely those of the authors. They do not necessarily represent the views of their affiliated organizations.

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Second test flights performed at Nansha Islands

China determined to project forces in the South China Sea – Bang Tran | Futura Institute

27 January 2016

China’s expansion in the South China Sea: From small steps to a giant leap

On January 2, 2016, a Chinese Cessna Citation Sovereign 680 landed on the airfield on Fiery Cross Reef, one of the 7 features occupied by China in Spratly Islands. On January 6, China carried out test flights of two large commercial airliners at this newly built airfield,. People cannot help but wonder how that could happen on a submerged feature by nature. Indeed, the airfield was not built in one day; eventually the work already began in 1987.

Second test flights performed at Nansha Islands

Airbus A319 (China Southern Airlines) and Boeing B737 (Hainan Airlines) on Fiery Cross Reef. Jan 6, 2016. ©Xinhua

According to IHS Jane’s report and CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, in March 1987, China agreed to build 5 weather monitoring stations, including one in the South China Sea, for an UNESCO project. China used this to justify its occupation of features in Spratly Islands. The Chinese occupation of features led to confrontations with Vietnam. The most serious incident was the March 1988 Johnson Reef skirmish where Chinese navy attacked, killed 64 Vietnamese, sunk 3 Vietnamese ships and finally occupied Johnson South Reef. Aftermath, China moved quickly to consolidate its presence. By the end of 1988, China had occupied six reefs and atolls in the Spratly Islands. In 1990, China built a two-story concrete structure on Fiery Cross Reef, believed to be an observation post, and then added a helipad as well as a pier shortly. Within 14 years, China had added to the facility a soldier’s garrison, a helipad, a wharf, a greenhouse, communication equipment and coastal artillery.

August 14, 2014

Fiery Cross Reef, August 14, 2014. © CSIS

September 3, 2015

Fiery Cross Reef, September 3, 2015. © CSIS

It was the turning point in summer 2014 when China started land reclamation in all of 7 occupied features, and then accelerated with the completion of airstrips and ports. However, this went unnoticed as the world was distracted by the Hysy-981 standoff, which happened at the same time as China started to speed up work in Fiery Cross Reef as well as in other 6 features. One year later, from small military outposts, China had built bases that can be used for both civilian and military forces. In the near future, once all the facilities are installed, the artificial islands would become strategic bases for China to control and project forces to the South China Sea.

Strategic values of the artificial islands: securing China’s core interests

With all Paracel islands and the 7 artificial islands in Spratly islands, which are much larger than all the natural ones in Spratly islands, China now holds a strategic position in the South China Sea. The airstrips and ports can serve as logistics and frontier command posts for intelligence, patrol and force projection. Before the construction of airstrips and large ports, China was unable to control the South China Sea where China claims for almost all the waters despite the protest of ASEAN countries (Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei). Lacking of efficient air, navy tankers or long range systems, China People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy and Air force cannot operate thousand kilometers far from its farthest southern bases in Hainan with the current combat systems. The 3110m length, 200-300m width airstrips meet the requirements to support all kinds of aircrafts, from UAVs, fighters, early warning aircrafts to medium and heavy transport aircrafts.

Furthermore, the bases provide China facilities and the real ability to control a vast area next to its border, which is vital for its economy. China, the world second largest economy, imports more and more fossil fuel and natural resources from Africa and Middle East. The lion share of China’s import and export pass through the South China Sea, Malacca strait and Indian Ocean. Without supports from coastal military bases, these sea lanes are vulnerable. Hence, China would need to secure these lanes with its navy. Analysts believe that the sea ports in Malaysia (Klang), Myanmar (Sittwe and Kyaukpyu), Bangladesh (Chittagong), Sri Lanka (Hambantota and Colombo), and Pakistan (Gwadar) could play a bigger role rather than commercial ports, especially in crisis. Those who do not believe in the “spring of pearls” strategy develop a theory saying that China is not able to build military bases in South and Southeast Asian countries, at least in short or mid-term, due to the “swing” policy of these countries. Also, as the matter of fact, China does not have sufficient experience and technology in that area. They might be right but in reality China still continues building ports wherever they can for potential military purpose. To date, China has established bases in Paracel and Spratly islands and continues to negotiate with Djibouti to set up a military base.

Other than territorial claim and maritime transport security, China might want to keep away threats coming from other global and regional powers such as the US and India far from its border. The bases in Paracel and Spratly islands allow China to access to the deep blue waters. 30 years on, China has been building its navy from a near shore, purely defensive force to a blue sea navy. The announcement of building indigenously a new aircraft carrier is merely the emerging part of an iceberg. China has reorganized and modernized not only the PLA structure but also its defense technology and industrial base. Without a comprehensive organization, the PLA in general and the PLA Navy in particular, does not have any chance to neither challenge the US in the Pacific and Indian oceans nor dominate the regional powers’ navies.

In the South China Sea, the 7 artificial islands occupied by China is the real game changer. Before the land reclamation in 2014, these outposts were small, isolated and ill-supplied. They could be accessed by helicopters and maritime supply ships only. Upon the completion of airfield, ports and necessary military equipment, it fully unleashes the potential of those artificial islands. In war time, especially short and local scale war, military aircrafts and warships from Fiery Cross Reef and Cuarteron Reef could deny access between the southern part and the central part of Spratly islands. And in a very short time, the bases in Subi, Hughes, Gaven, Johnson and Mischief Reefs could effectively overwhelm the much less powerful Vietnamese or Philippines outposts in the center of Spratly islands. In such scenario, if China succeeded to isolate and overwhelm parts of Spratly islands, they could rapidly take over a large number of features in Spratly islands in a considerable short time, before any agreement of ceasefire. There is a chance for such scenario given what happened in Paracels islands in 1956 and 1974, Spratly islands in 1988 and 1995, and in Scarborough Shoal in 2012, where China all gained control and access.

China’s commitment: DOC and the future of COC?

In 2002, China and ASEAN members signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). In the DOC, China and ASEAN member states declared to “reaffirm their commitment to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, and other universally recognized principles of international law which shall serve as the basic norms governing state-to-state relations” and “ are committed to exploring ways for building trust and confidence in accordance with the above-mentioned principles and on the basis of equality and mutual respect”. China and ASEAN also committed to “undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability”. However, in reality, since 2002, China law reinforcement force and China fishing boats have rammed, harassed and sunk Vietnamese fishing boats,,, fired at fishermen, cut the cable of Vietnamese survey boat, etc. In 2014, China anchored the Hysy-981 in the EEZ of Vietnam. And the most aggressive move is the land reclamation in summer 2014 in all 7 features occupied by China.

In the declaration, ASEAN and China reaffirmed that “the adoption of a code of conduct in the South China Sea would further promote peace and stability”. Given the actual situation in the South China Sea, the future of the COC is still unknown.

Bang Tran is president of X-Vietnam (Association of Vietnamese students of Ecole Polytechnique) and Futura Institute (a Paris-based think-tank on Asia-Pacific issues). Contact: bang.tran@polytechnique.org

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Toward a freeze of five lighthouses in the South China Sea at ASEAN Regional Forum 2014 | Tuong Nguyen, SEAS Issues

09 August 2014

SEAS Issues/PARIS – According to the state-run China News Service, China’s Navigation Guarantee Center plans to build five lighthouses in the Paracels (including North Reef, Antelope Reef, Drummond Island, South Sand and Pyramid Rock). The plan has been announced as a response to the Triple Action Plan (TAP) of the Philippines and the joint stance of the Foreign ministers of Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam to freeze provocative and destabilizing acts in the South China Sea.


ASEAN Foreign Secretary in January 2014 at Bagan, Myanmar. Photo (C) AFP

The Chinese officials and experts said that “the lighthouse is a symbol of the country’s sovereignty in the islands”, and placing lighthouses will help boost the maritime navigation in the region because these reefs, islets are not on the detailed maps for civilian ships.

Yesterday, August 07, 2014, Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly criticised that the move is illegal under the routine formula: “Vietnam has  indisputable sovereignty over Hoang Sa and Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelagos. Therefore, all Chinese activities in the two groups of islands are null and void”.

Today, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi rejects Philippines’s TAP and Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying defends China’s lighthouse plan: “China has long been building and maintaining lighthouses on its “inherent” islands and provides necessary measures relevant to international rules for navigational safety of vessels passing by.”

The US also call for a “freeze” on provocative acts, proposing that “when there are disagreements, the claimant states would decide among themselves what type of specific activities are considered provocative or out-of-bounds, offer to put a voluntary freeze on any such actions if other claimants would commit to do so likewise”.

This recent move in these small islets and reefs in Paracels occupied by force since 1974 by China and continuously claimed by Vietnam, shows Beijing’s ambition to assert its territorial claims in the disputed area. While the US hope that the Code of Conducts (COC) would be a particular topic of conversation at the upcoming ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) on August 10 in Naypyidaw, the Philippines focus on their TAP to “freeze” China’s lighthouse plan.

Tuong Nguyen is a contributor at SEAS Issues and a free commentator on the South China Sea affairs on Global Post and Eurasia Review. The author would like to thank Thuy Linh Le and BDTP Group for the proof reading.

The views expressed are the author’s own.

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File:Paracel Islands-CIA WFB Map-2.JPG

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Vietnamese scholars planning to send a letter to the UN on 40th year of Paracels battle* – by Tinh Le | SEASF, BDTP

11 January 2014

by Tinh Le - SEASFBDTP - The 19th of January this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Chinese military intervention on the Paracel archipelago. Since 40 years, China occupied the whole archipelago.

However, following international law, Paracel archipelago is always under the sovereignty of Viet Nam. The Charter of the United Nations prohibits the acquisition of territory by force.

Viet Nam must always remind the world of this obvious breach of international law of China, always affirms its sovereignty on the archipelago, and urges Chinato accept the submission of the Paracel archipelago dispute to the arbitration of the International Court of Justice, the most appropriate organization to resolve territorial disputes between States.

 

File:Paracel Islands-CIA WFB Map-2.JPG

Position of the Battle of the Paracel Islands (C) CIA

That is the content of the letter we send to the United Nations, with the strong belief that a world of peace and justice exists only when each country respects international law.

The letter is written by two civil society activists striving for the justice for Viet Namand other small countries in the disputes on the South China Sea: Southeast-Asia Sea Research Foundation and the BDTP Group.

The letter is reviewed by world’s leading experts on international law, by senior civil activists, with all the seriousness and the highest caution.

Because we would like to bring the voices of Vietnamese and people loving justice around the world to the highest and most competent legal authorities of the world:

  • United Nations General Secretary
  • United Nations Rule of Law Unit
  • United Nations First Committee (Disarmament and International Security)
  • International Court of Justice

Let’s remind the world the flagrant violation of international law whenChinainvaded the Paracel archipelago in 1974. Let’s urgeChinato submit the dispute to the International Court of Justice.

Please join us in signing this letter: http://goo.gl/qagq5R

One voice may be small, but a million will change the world.

 


(*) Tinh Le is member of Southeast-Asia Sea Research Foundation and BDTP Group.  The orginal title submitted by Tinh Le: Press Release: “Letter sent to the United Nations on the 40th anniversary of Chinese military intervention on the Paracel archipelag”

 

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US lawmakers: China should face Phl before UN – by Pia Lee-Brago | The Philippine Star

30 January 2013

by Pia Lee-Brago | The Philippine Star - MANILA, Philippines – Six visiting US congressmen, led by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce of California, yesterday expressed support for the decision of the Philippines to seek assistance from the United Nations arbitral tribunal to resolve disputes with China over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary for American Affairs Carlos Sorreta said the US congressional delegation that also includes Eliot Engel (D-New York), Gregory Meeks (D-New York), Vern Buchanan (R-Florida), Matthew James Salmon (R-Arizona) and  Thomas Anthony Marino (R-Pennsylvania) pledged support for the legal action of Manila to resolve the maritime dispute.

“Yes,” Sorreta said when asked whether the US delegation supports the Philippines’ legal action. The question was asked during the meeting of the lawmakers with Secretary Albert del Rosario at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

The American lawmakers arrived last Jan. 28 for a three-day visit.

“We conveyed  to them  our determination  to see this case  through and they have said that they support it,” Sorreta said.

He said the US congressmen  would  proceed  to  Beijing and were expected  to  raise  the  territorial  dispute with Chinese officials.

“I hope that they will discuss this. It is our hope that they will discuss  it with the Chinese when they go to Beijing,” Sorreta said.

The Philippines had earlier brought China before a United Nations tribunal to challenge its claim to most of the South China Sea.

Del Rosario said Manila had informed Beijing last Jan. 22 about the decision to take China to the UN  arbitral tribunal under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to attain a peaceful and durable solution to the dispute.

Assistant Secretary for Asia-Pacific Affairs Teresa Lazaro handed Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing a diplomatic note informing China that the Philippines had initiated arbitration proceedings on the sea dispute.

Ma maintained that the territorial row should be settled through direct negotiations and that China has sovereignty over the South China Sea and its adjacent waters.

According to Del Rosario, Beijing’s “nine-dash line” outlining its territorial claims over most of the sea, including waters and islands close to its neighbors, is illegal.

The Philippines also demands that China “desist from unlawful activities that violate the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the Philippines under the 1982 UNCLOS,” he added.

The country’s legal action is pursuant to President Aquino’s mandate to defend Philippine territory and maritime domain.

China’s territorial claims overlap those of the Philippines as well as Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

“The Philippines has exhausted almost all political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of its maritime dispute with China. On numerous occasions dating back to 1995, the Philippines has been exchanging views with China to peacefully settle these disputes. To this day, a solution is still elusive. We hope the arbitral proceedings will bring this dispute to a durable solution,” Del Rosario said.

Solicitor General Francis Jardeleza is the country’s representative to the arbitral proceedings while the lead counsel is Paul Reichler of Foley and Hoag LLP.

The foreign secretary said the arbitral tribunal has jurisdiction to hear the Philippines’ notification and statement of claim under the UNCLOS.

The Philippines is hopeful that the UN tribunal will declare China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea invalid and contrary to UNCLOS.

Chinese maritime vessels confronted Philippine Navy ships last year in a months-long standoff over Panatag (Scarborough) shoal off Zambales.

Rules-based

In his earlier meeting with Del Rosario and Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Cuisia Jr. on Capitol Hill, Royce had also reiterated his support for the Philippines’ rules-based approach to the territorial dispute and the peaceful resolution of issues within the framework of international law.

The US government had always expressed support for a peaceful resolution of the South China Sea disputes.

Royce met with Del Rosario at the DFA. The US congressman will also meet with President Aquino, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr., other Philippine officials, and local business leaders.

“We welcome the visit of chairman Royce and the congressional delegation to the Philippines. Chairman Royce is committed to a strong alliance between the Philippines and the US, and he has been a great friend of the Filipino community in the US,” Del Rosario said.

Cuisia joined Philippine officials in meeting with the US congressional delegation.

He said the inclusion of the Philippines in the first foreign trip of Royce as chair of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee reflects the value he accords to Philippine-US friendship.

Royce also supports President Aquino’s efforts in fighting corruption, strengthening the rule of law, and promoting human rights.

“It is best that China joins the process so that we can move forward under international law,” Royce told the Associated Press after meeting Del Rosario and other diplomats at the DFA.

“We want to calm the tensions,” Royce said. “We want this approached from the standpoint of diplomacy, and that is what we are conveying because in that way we don’t create crisis which roils the markets or creates uncertainty.”

Meanwhile, former President Joseph Estrada said President Aquino should always protect the territorial integrity of the Philippines as head of state.

Estrada said this is the reason why he supported the Aquino administration’s decision to file a case against China before the UN.

Aquino earlier admitted that he consulted Estrada and former President Fidel Ramos before deciding to file a case against China before the UN. – With Jose Rodel Clapano, AP

 (Original version is available at The Philippine Star)

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A Japanese coast guard ship, right, pursues a Taiwanese fishing boat near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea on September 25.

A regional code of conduct is needed to defuse maritime claims – by Yang Razali Kassim | RSIS

28 September 2012

by Yang Razali Kassim | RSIS - The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is displaying a sense of urgency to get the proposed Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea off the ground.

A Japanese coast guard ship, right, pursues a Taiwanese fishing boat near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea on September 25.

A Japanese coast guard ship, right, pursues a Taiwanese fishing boat near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea on September 25.

The latest manifestation is a joint statement by Singaporean and Vietnamese leaders. Following a visit on September 14 to Singapore, general secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stressed the importance of starting talks on the COC “as soon as possible”.

The same urgency has been expressed in other regional capitals since Asean restored some of its dented credibility with a joint statement of principles on July 26 following the failure of the 45th Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting (AMM) in Phnom Penh to issue a joint communique on the South China Sea disputes.

The draft COC, which has been discussed by Asean in Phnom Penh, has to be negotiated with China and readied in time for the Asean summits in November. Asean leaders will first meet among themselves, and then have back-to-back summits with their East Asian counterparts China, Japan and South Korea, as well as five other powers, including the United States. These key actors have stakes in a region that is currently roiling with tension over territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. An anti-Japan nationalist groundswell in China is threatening to escalate into a major confrontation between the two neighbours over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

The coming Asean and East Asia summits will therefore be the most critical gathering of regional leaders in years. They will affect regional peace and shape the security architecture of not just East Asia but also the wider Indo-Pacific region in view of the far-reaching repercussions.

With only three months to go, putting in place a COC process is vital – at least as a framework for negotiations. If managed sensitively, a COC in the South China Sea has the potential to also become a template for dispute resolution in the East China Sea. The US, while declaring its neutrality, has warned of conflict breaking out in the event of a miscalculation over the Senkaku/Diaoyu disputes, which could drag it in. Needless to say, the same apprehension lies behind the current rush in Asean for the much-anticipated COC for the South China Sea.

But China, as a principal actor in the territorial disputes in both bodies of water, and a key party to the regional COC with Asean, appears to be in no hurry. While on a visit to Jakarta as part of a regional trip on August 11, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said China was willing to work with Asean to implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). But at the same time, this exercise, he said, should be “on the basis of consensus” towards “the eventual adoption of the COC”. The Chinese foreign minister has reportedly also said that China would approach the COC “when the time is ripe”.

In other words, whatever Asean comes up with to resolve the South China Sea disputes will not fly without the concurrence of China. Besides, before the COC is agreed, Beijing would prefer to focus on implementing the DOC – which is one significant step before the COC. Clearly, the COC negotiations will be tough and protracted. While Asean and others want to step on it, especially in view of the growing tensions in the region, China seems intent to bide its time.

Unlike the DOC, the COC is supposed to be binding. But whether it will indeed be so is not a certainty. Asean has proposed key elements to reflect the underlying principles of peaceful resolution of disputes; conformity with international law; and mechanisms for dispute resolution and for monitoring the implementation of the COC. By now the key elements would have been forwarded to China for consideration.

But at what point should China come into the picture in the drafting of the COC? On April 4, the Philippines said only Asean members would be involved in the drafting. Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa, taking a different tack, said: “There will be constant communication through the Asean-China framework so that whatever final position Asean comes up with, (it) will have benefitted from some kind of communication with China as well.”

From China’s perspective, the South China Sea disputes are best addressed within the framework of the Asean-China summit track (Asean+1). In other words, even the drafting of the COC has to have Beijing’s concurrence. Dr Marty’s formulation of China’s entry into the drafting process is therefore a compromise: it allows Asean its own space to discuss what essentially is an internal affair that affects all members – claimant state or not – while still exchanging notes with China as a negotiating partner.

As a confidence-building measure, a regional COC actually fits in with China’s geo-strategy. It was the late Deng Xiaoping who came up with a formula to resolve competing claims over territory: disputing parties should shelve their claims pending a resolution and in the meanwhile jointly develop the disputed areas. If Beijing does go for the so-called “Deng Xiaoping solution”, joint development will be one of the key elements in China’s version of the COC.

This, however, does not mean it will be accepted by the Asean claimants. While the Deng formula is pragmatic, the underlying dispute over sovereignty will still be in the way. In fact, some of the Asean claimant states may have reservations about the “develop now, resolve later” approach. Acceptance, they fear, might imply recognition of China’s claim to the disputed areas.

Regardless, moving from the DOC to the COC phase is critical if the region is to contain and defuse the current tensions in the South China Sea. Indeed, it may also have an effect on the tensions further north in the East China Sea that are calling out for cooler heads to prevail.

Yang Razali Kassim is a senior fellow with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

RSIS Commentaries.

(Republished version is available at The Nation)

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The Neverending Story: Drama in the South China Sea – Trefor Moss | The Diplomat

07 September 2012

by Trefor Moss | The Diplomat - While many have put their faith in a Code of Conduct some wonder if China is stalling for time. A real solution may take years, if ever.

 

ASEAN

The South China Sea is often presented as one of the world’s thorniest territorial disputes. A group of objective, completely disinterested observers, however, would likely find this characterization peculiar. Indeed, to these hypothetical people, it would seem painfully obvious what needed to be done to at least significantly reduce the tensions in the South China Sea. Such a plan would likely start with four simple steps:

Step 1: Put sovereignty issues to one side. These are too complex and too emotive to be solved in the foreseeable future.

Step 2: Establish who claims what. China, for example, is extremely protective of its sovereignty, but it has never made a precise declaration about which areas of the South China Sea it actually owns (vaguely drawing dashes on a map doesn’t count). Claims should be filed with the UN’s International Court of Justice by a certain date – complete with latitude or longitude coordinates – or be considered frivolous by the rest of the world.

Step 3: Use UNCLOS wherever possible. Here’s a happy coincidence: all South China Sea claimants have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. That should make this situation so much easier to handle. For areas that are not contested, UNCLOS clearly lays out the rights of the claimant state and also of non-claimant states in territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. Any problems and the Convention (Article 279 ff.) also has a detailed dispute-resolution mechanism.

Step 4: Neutralize the contested areas. If the disputants really want to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea – and they all say that they do – then they obviously need to draw up a set of rules governing what is and is not allowed in disputed zones. They could call it a Code of Conduct, or some something of the sort. Likely rules would include: the demilitarization of disputed areas; refraining from any provocative rhetoric or action, such as new construction projects on contested islands; no exploration for, or exploitation of, marine resources, unless the claimants agree to do it jointly; and the establishment of a dispute resolution mechanism, probably under the auspices of the ICJ.

It all sounds so simple. But beyond the realms of this “Fantasy Dispute Resolution” and back in the messy world of international politics, this tidy plan is a complete non-starter. The underlying reason for this is that different countries diagnose the South China Sea problem differently. Some think the situation is dangerous and needs fixing. Others, notably China, are actually quite comfortable with the status-quo.

For many observers, the recent disputes over Scarborough Shoal and other island territories have become a matter of great concern. Beijing is less disturbed, however. In fact, China’s strategy is to maintain this sometimes messy status-quo, while making outward demonstrations of being cooperative about seeking a lasting solution so as to guard against accusations that it is the problem. It calculates that these tensions are unlikely to lead to conflict, and that they are an acceptable price to pay for its continued ability to act with relative impunity in disputed areas. At the same time, Beijing doesn’t want to overstep the mark, which would harm its standing in Southeast Asia (many parts of which are pro-China), and invite greater U.S. involvement in the region.

Beijing’s grandest cooperative gesture to date was its establishment of the 3 billion yuan ($473 billion USD) China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund in 2011. Discussions are now underway about how this money can be spent in order to help implement the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) in the South China Sea. According to Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, this is all building up to a tenth anniversary communiqué to mark the original signing of the DOC. But is this really anything to celebrate? The DOC is a failed protocol that was never properly implemented – which is why momentum has built up behind the formulation of a new Code of Conduct. “China’s view is that some ASEAN members have repeatedly violated the DOC; that’s also the view of some of the ASEAN countries about China,” Storey remarks.

“But is China serious about an effective Code of Conduct?” he asks. “I think the answer is no. A really effective code would constrain China’s freedom of manoeuver in the South China Sea, and big countries don’t like that.”

The Philippines, Vietnam, and other interested parties have doubtless reached the same conclusion about China’s commitment to crafting a meaningful COC. Filipino proposals backed by Hanoi for a robust COC have already been diluted by other ASEAN members, for fear of antagonizing China. More recently, the July ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting held in Phnom Penh descended into a farce, with Cambodia, the current Chair, blocking constructive debate about the South China Sea dispute in defense of China’s interests. Cambodia has sold ASEAN out: in doing so, it has facilitated a Chinese policy of extraterritorial interference in Southeast Asia’s key institution. For China, it’s been a foreign-policy coup.

Indonesia – doing the job that Cambodia failed to do – subsequently showed ASEAN some leadership after the Phnom Penh fiasco, cobbling together a common position called the “Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea”. Though better than the Cambodian no-show, it’s a lax document that goes no further than calling for “an early conclusion” to the COC drafting process.

That won’t happen. China has already begun soft-pedaling on talks, which are now unlikely to happen until 2013 (the upcoming leadership handover in Beijing all but rules out near-term movement on what has become such a contentious issue). A new code is therefore unlikely to emerge before 2014 at the earliest.

It would be worth the wait, of course, if it was a business-like code that really sought to regulate the behavior of claimant states. But nobody expects it to be. “China will not accept anything that is mandatory,” concludes Carlyle Thayer, an emeritus professor at the Australian Defence Force Academy.

Strangely enough, China could gain a great deal from backing the formulation of an effective COC. Its image in the region would receive a considerable boost; calls for greater U.S. involvement in the regionwould diminish; and the chances of conflict over some tiny island would recede.

However, these attractive aspects of cooperative diplomacy are outweighed by Beijing’s instinct not to give any ground where sovereignty issues are concerned. “When it comes to high-stake, high-politics issues, such as territorial disputes and strategic rivalries, international agreements have limited impact,” suggests Zhang Baohui, an associate professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. “Overall I think China is a status quo power on the South China Sea issues,” Zhang but observes that upholding the status quo cuts both ways: China won’t facilitate a lasting solution, but it won’t be the one to provoke a confrontation either. It will only react forcefully to perceived provocations on the part of others, as in its recent dispute with Manila. At the same time, it will not hold back from pushing the envelope of acceptable behavior, such as upgrading Sansha to city status, for example, or granting new drilling rights to Chinese oil companies.

But what is China’s ultimate objective in all of this? “They just want to play for time, and to drag it out as long as possible,” argues Storey. “What is China’s end game? I don’t think they know themselves.”

Sadly, there is no Plan B for the South China Sea. China and ASEAN appear locked into the futile process of formulating a Code of Conduct that won’t address the types of conduct that actually need addressing. Pity the poor diplomats who will be spending the next two years working on it. The COC is another fantasy – only one that won’t sound good either in theory or in practice.

Photo Credit: Wikicommons

 (Original version is available at The Diplomat)

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