As one of the claimants to disputed territory in the South China Sea, the Philippines finds itself in a tricky position, having just assumed the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The regional bloc’s long-held ambition of formulating a binding code of conduct that China will honour has made excruciatingly slow progress, although movement has resumed.
Fellow Asean members Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam join the Philippines in laying claim to maritime territories over which China insists it has sovereignty. Contention simmers among the Asean neighbours as well, as national interests compete with those of the group as a whole. Indonesia meanwhile has occasionally bickered with China over fishing rights.
All of these conflicts continue to undermine social and economic cooperation across the region. Hopes for a solution rest with a code of conduct that would guide development in the South China Sea, beneath which might lie substantial oil and gas deposits. Decades of negotiations with China have thus far produced only the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). Signed in 2002 but not legally binding, the DOC has failed to stop China from proceeding with development unilaterally. It has erected facilities for military and civilian use on disputed islands, reefs and shoals.
In 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the document’s signing and amid changes in Chinese leadership that saw Beijing relax its stance on maritime sovereignty, Asean pressed for the code of conduct. China maintained that the DOC has to be properly implemented first, but was open to a proposal by then-Asean chair Thailand that formal talks begin on the code. The goal seemed more tangible than ever. A task force was established and Singapore, assuming the rotating chairmanship, kept the momentum going. Recently Asean and China, as suggested by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, agreed to “fast-track” their negotiations, aiming to have a framework for the code by mid-year. A joint working group is scheduled to hold its first meeting in Bali next month.
Despite the fresh impetus, settling on a framework that’s acceptable to all will be an uphill task. Significant gaps separate the Southeast Asian bloc from China, fissures exist within the bloc itself, and all 10 Asean members, including those without sea claims, have to be careful that their individual interests are not overridden.
A major factor coming into play is the roiling relationship between the United States and China. Washington has been adamant that Beijing not only allow “freedom of navigation” in the sea but also honour last year’s Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that recognised the Philippines’ sovereignty over territory that China has claimed. Since that ruling, however, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has been increasingly warm towards China and disdainful of America. And next week Donald Trump becomes US president, bringing to the White House his open animosity towards Beijing.
With the Philippines now holding the reins of Asean and with the Court of Arbitration decision available as a crucial bargaining chip – albeit one scorned by Beijing – negotiations over the code of conduct will be interesting. The talks cannot help but be contentious, involving as they do the East’s great superpower alongside the weighty influence of its Western rival. No doubt Russia will be watching carefully too for any shift in the balance of power in Asia.
Add to this the predicament into which the Philippines is cast as both Asean chair and territorial claimant. Hardly able to serve as an honest broker on behalf of its regional neighbours, it must somehow deal with the dilemma of balancing group interest with national interest while facing down all the might of China.