The Yomiuri ShimbunTo prevent conflicts and maintain order in the South China Sea, it is indispensable to lay down legally binding international rules. It will be difficult to achieve this objective as long as China, which is continuing its self-righteous maritime advances, takes the lead in discussions on this.
China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have held a meeting of their foreign ministers, at which they agreed on a framework for a regional “Code of Conduct” aimed at preventing collisions in the South China Sea. The framework is said to include such principles as ensuring maritime safety and freedom of navigation.
The problem is that it does not refer to whether the code of conduct will have legally binding force. If it is not legally binding, the code cannot be expected to impose a curb on China when it carries out activities that violate the criteria.
In 2002, China and ASEAN signed the “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” which advocated peacefully settling territorial disputes, based on international law. However, China unilaterally started work to build artificial islands and military facilities in that sea area, and this has prompted ASEAN to advocate devising a pertinent code of conduct at an early date.
China’s claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea were entirely rejected by a decision handed down by a court of arbitration in July last year. To fend off international criticisms, China became positive about holding talks with ASEAN over relevant issues.
One view holds that it will take several years for an actual code of conduct to be laid down. China’s aim in this respect is obvious — that is, making its control over the South China Sea a fait accompli by buying time through dialogue with ASEAN and gutting the substance of the code. It is unacceptable for the envisaged code of conduct to be written in a manner that would approve of China’s attempt to change the status quo by force.
ASEAN must fulfill role
The South China Sea is an important sea lane for Japan and the United States. Foreign Minister Taro Kono and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had every reason to press for the creation of an effective code of conduct at meetings with the ASEAN foreign ministers.
It cannot be overlooked that China is making headway in its attempt to undermine ASEAN unity against the backdrop of its economic and military strength.
Examples include the Philippines, which contested China at the court of arbitration. The administration of President Rodrigo Duterte has agreed, in effect, to postpone dealing with its dispute with China in exchange for a massive amount of economic assistance from that nation.
By taking advantage of ASEAN’s principle of unanimity, Cambodia — a pro-China member of the association — has sought to prevent actions against China, such as the issuance of a joint statement condemning that country.
The joint statement issued after the latest ASEAN foreign ministerial meeting did not mention China by name, only emphasizing the importance of “non-militarization” of the South China Sea.
Tuesday marks the 50th year since the establishment of ASEAN as a regional organization opposing communism. Is it possible to say that ASEAN is fully fulfilling its role of contributing to regional stability through dialogue with nations outside the region?
The meaning of ASEAN’s existence could be diluted if divisions among its members continue to widen in the face of China’s influence.