An agreement by top diplomats from China and Southeast Asia to adopt a negotiating framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea might be seen as a sign Beijing has weakened opposition to its manoeuvring in the region, but analysts have questioned whether it will actually help to resolve any disputes.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Sunday released a joint communique on the sidelines of a series of meetings in Manila, where the disputed waters were a hot topic. In the statement, which appeared to have been carefully worded so as not to upset China, Asean foreign ministers reaffirmed their readiness to begin substantive negotiations on the code of conduct, and tasked senior officials with starting negotiations with China.
One observer said that as Beijing has already succeeded in weakening resistance within the 10-member Asean the talks in Manila might pave the way for smoother negotiations on the code of conduct in November.
Zhang Mingliang, a Southeast Asian affairs expert at Jinan University in the southern China city of Guangzhou, said the fact that the South China Sea ruling initiated by the Philippines was not even mentioned in Sunday’s statement was a triumph for Beijing.
“As China has established its military advantage in recent years, particularly in the Nansha Islands, Asean countries have become passive during negotiations,” he said, using the Chinese name for the Spratly Islands.
Despite the adoption of the framework, the huge differences between China and Asean, and even between member states, mean it is unlikely that any concrete progress will be achieved, he said.
The statement did not contain any details about the framework, nor did it say if the code of conduct would be legally binding, a clause that Vietnam and others had earlier demanded.
It did say, however, that after extensive discussions, concerns had been voiced by some members about land reclamation “and activities in the area which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tension and may undermine peace, security and stability”.
The main bones of contention on any efforts to resolve the disputes in the South China Sea are Beijing’s reluctance to have a code of conduct that is legally binding and has a punishment mechanism, and the ambiguity over its geographical applicability.
China’s foreign minister Wang Yi said on Sunday that the adoption of the framework would provide a good foundation for negotiations in the coming months.
China and Asean will begin negotiations on the code of conduct “at an appropriate time within this year”, he said. The two sides are also considering officially announcing the commencement of such talks in November, when top leaders meet for the East Asian summit, he said.
Clarita Carlos, an expert on international relations at the University of the Philippines, said she is confident that the next phase of negotiations for the code of conduct will commence at the Asean Leaders’ Summit in November.
“US President Donald Trump is focused on domestic issues and when it comes to international affairs, [his focus] is on North Korea,” she said. “With the US interfering less on South China Sea issues than before, discussions between Asean and China might be simpler.”
However, Dai Fan, a Southeast Asian affairs expert at Jinan University said that the US might encourage Asean countries to set higher goals in their talks with China, which could hamper negotiations.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea and in recent years has expanded its presence in the contested waters by building artificial islands that can be used as military bases. It is embroiled in individual disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
In July last year, after hearing a case brought by the Philippines, the Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected China’s historical claims to the waters, triggering a furious response from Beijing.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, however, played down the verdict, and promoted ties between Manila and Beijing, which led to offers of lucrative investment and aid.