BORACAY, Philippines The Association of Southeast Asian Nations hopes to soon reach a deal with China on a “framework” for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, though some bloc members appear more enthusiastic about the idea than others.
“We are confident that this code of conduct, the framework, will be completed by the middle of this year or soon thereafter, simply [because] everyone, including ASEAN member states and China, is pushing hard for this,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay told reporters on Feb. 21.
Yasay was speaking to reporters at the end of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat at a Boracay island beach resort in the central Philippines. The country is the ASEAN chair this year.
Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines — as well as China — have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, a strategic and resource-rich waterway through which some $5 trillion in trade passes annually.
In 2002, China and ASEAN, including non-claimant members Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand, signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. In doing so, they agreed to adopt a legally binding code of conduct to manage tensions in the area, seen as a potential flashpoint.
Talks on the code, however, have continued for over a decade. ASEAN diplomats have accused Beijing of dragging its feet, and in recent years, China has built at least seven artificial islands in the sea and installed military equipment on them.
Perhaps not all ASEAN members share the same level of worry over these developments. Cambodia and Laos, which receive considerable economic aid and investment from Beijing, have been traditionally pro-China.
“On the South China Sea, a number of ministers expressed concern over recent developments and escalations of activities in the area, which may further raise tensions and erode trust and confidence in the region,” Yasay said.
In addition, not all ASEAN members are on the same page over last year’s international tribunal ruling that rejected China’s claims in the South China Sea. “There were two, three or four ministers that have expressed concern about the respect for the 2016 decision of the [tribunal] ruling,” Yasay said, declining to provide names.
China refuses to recognize the ruling, which was initially sought by the previous Philippine administration. New President Rodrigo Duterte has put the issue on the back burner.
Yasay stressed the code should not just promote further talks. “We will make sure that this code of conduct will be legally binding on all parties.”
The discussions also touched on the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. Some analysts see Trump’s “America first” policy potentially playing into Beijing’s hands in the South China Sea.
The recent assassination in Kuala Lumpur of Kim Jong Nam, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s half brother, came up as well. Yasay said some other ASEAN governments harbor concerns that similar incidents could happen within their borders.