China and its Southeast Asian neighbours have too much at stake economically to allow tensions over the South China Sea to get in the way of relations. Understandably, then, the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders’ summit was marked not by conflict, but cordiality. Fresh strains caused by Chinese island-building and an international tribunal’s rejection of Beijing’s claims to almost all the waters could not be ignored, though, ensuring renewed vigour in finding a solution. An agreement to exercise restraint while working resolutely towards finalising a legally binding code of conduct sets the right direction towards assuring regional peace and stability.
Marking the 25th anniversary of China-Asean dialogue relations, the sides said at the Vientiane gathering they were making progress towards early adoption of the code of conduct, based on consensus. To prevent maritime conflicts, guidelines for a hotline to deal with emergencies at sea were approved, along with rules for unexpected encounters of naval ships and aircraft. China’s refusal to acknowledge July’s ruling at The Hague court in a case brought by the Philippines was not mentioned during talks, highlighting its sensitivity, but also underscoring the pragmatism of Asean governments. They know there is a need for a two-track approach, one to deal with the dispute, the other to push for economic growth and development.
The sides have been working on a code of conduct since China initiated the idea 14 years ago. It was mandated by the 2002 China-Asean Declaration on Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea, a non-binding document calling for self-restraint and resolution of disputes through direct negotiations. There have since been numerous violations by most of the six governments which claim all or part of the waters. Intervention by the US through its military pivot to the region and building and strengthening of alliances has complicated matters.
But as complex as the dispute is, governments know that it cannot be allowed to get in the way of economic objectives. China is Asean’s biggest trading partner and Asean is China’s third largest. Asia is an integral part of Beijing’s belt and road initiative. There is also every need for perspective; President Xi Jinping’s goals are to revive the Chinese economy, boost China’s global role and have a workable relationship with the US, matters that the dispute could too easily derail.
Agreeing to a code of conduct is in the interests of China and Asean. With it will come assurance, peace and security.