Experts see China foot-dragging on South China Sea code

Posted at 05/08/14 3:12 AM

'Angsty Asia' forum speakers (from left) Li Mingjiang, Simon Long, and Ian Storey who took turns discussing disputes that Asian countries have found themselves embroiled in. Photo by Arlene Burgos, ABS-CBNNews.com


SINGAPORE – A code of conduct for the claimants in the South China Sea maritime disputes is not likely to materialize within the next couple of years, with the biggest party in the contest, China, dragging its feet on negotiations, some analysts in the region are predicting ahead of the ASEAN summit this weekend.

“The problem is that China really decides the pace of negotiation. The official Asean position is that they want to see an early conclusion to the code of conduct,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) based in Singapore.

He added: “Essentially you can’t have an early conclusion where one of the parties doesn’t want to have an early conclusion. In my view, China wants to drag out and prolong these negotiations as long as possible."

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations' leaders are meeting May 10-11 in Myanmar.

China, which has been participating in expanded ASEAN meetings, will not be part of the gathering.

Storey, who specializes in Asian security issues, particularly in Southeast Asia, was referring to the code required in the 12-year-old Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).

He described the document as “a political statement that was meant to freeze the status quo and build cooperation.”

He spoke in a forum entitled "Angsty Asia" on May 2, organized by the Temasek Foundation-Nanyang Technological University’s Asia Journalism Fellowship.

The DOC is a non-binding agreement that has not been implemented as it provides for a more binding code of conduct.

Last year, China agreed to consultations on negotiations on a code.

“That doesn’t mean negotiations. It means consultations on negotiations,” Storey clarified when asked whether ASEAN might weigh in and exert effort to pacify dispute-brought tension in the region.

President Benigno Aquino will ask his fellow ASEAN leaders to work for the early conclusion of the COC, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said.

But a conclusion seems far off. Storey said “nothing was achieved” in the meeting of the joint working group on the code of conduct in Singapore three weeks ago, as well as in the Thai city of Pattaya last week.

“There’s not going to be any breakthrough this year, put it that way,” he said.

'Non-confrontational assertiveness'

Li Mingjiang, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Nanyang Technological University, during his talk in the same forum, cited the same tendency of China to delay negotiations.

“Before 2011, China almost had zero interest in engaging with Asean countries to talk about a formal code of conduct… But in the midst of rising tension and disputes, of course diplomatic pressures from US and Asean countries as well, China has now agreed to talk,” Li said.

He added: “We know there’s a lot of element of delay in the Chinese tactic, of course, but at least you have started the COC process.”

Li described China’s behavior as “non-confrontational assertiveness” as far its “maritime security policy in the past years, and probably in the coming years as well” is concerned.

Li, who has authored 9 books including ones tackling China’s international relations, said that China has been “more assertive” in handling disputes.

Yet, “there are limits as to how assertive and how far China can go” in its pursuit of this “non-confrontational maritime security policy.” The parameters in this mode of engagement may be derived from the domestic context, Li said.

'Mirage in the desert'

Storey likened the evasiveness of a COC conclusion to a "mirage in the desert": “As you walk towards it, it moves further away and when you finally get there all hot and thirsty and exhausted, there’s nothing there.”

He predicts an issuance of a COC by Asean and China in two or three years’ time, but even then, the emerging document “will not look very different from the existing agreement which has not been implemented.”

More importantly, Storey predicted “this will not affect the central dynamics of the dispute in any shape or form,” and “will be largely be symbolic.”

In defense of ASEAN

Yet, some see a silver lining in ASEAN’s ability to hold the club together without a major clash since it was established in 1967.

Simon Long of "The Economist" magazine, who has been covering mainly Asia in his 30 years as journalist, credited the absence of full-blown conflict in the region despite the disputes to the continued talks of the members of the group.

“In this region you don’t have to fear, or there seems to be less of a fear that any of this is gonna blow up into some bigger border confrontation,” Long said of the disputes among ASEAN member countries and neighbors like China.

Long said this may be traced to continuous meetings that ASEAN holds each year “which are building up habits of consultation and cooperation, and make war seem less thinkable.”