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Strategic composure needed for South China Sea code promotion

Author  :  Zhang Jie     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2017-08-21

A framework for a code of conduct designed to prevent incidents in the disputed waters of the South China Sea was agreed upon during a recent China-ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting.

A sign of warming China-ASEAN bilateral relations, both parties showed their willingness and ability to manage competing interests by coming up with commonly acknowledged regional rules. 

The act was not only an important step toward maintaining regional security but also conducive to fostering synergy between China’s “Belt and Road” initiative and the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025.

But developing the code of conduct has not been easy. Since 2010, tensions in the South China Sea have continued to rise due to constant friction stemming from territorial rivalries. Former US President Barack Obama’s “return to Asia” policy added a new dimension to the disputes. It was in this political context that China and ASEAN initiated their negotiations on the code. 

However, during several rounds of the China-ASEAN Senior Officials’ Consultation and Joint Working Group’s Meeting, the farce of the South China Sea Arbitration case, which was brought by the Philippines against China concerning certain issues in the South China Sea, intensified. At the same time, countries outside the region, such as America and Japan, increasingly intervened, derailing negotiations between China and ASEAN.

Fortunately, though the positions of ASEAN member countries on the South China Sea have vacillated in the past, many have arrived at a stable perspective on the issue while China has never abandoned its political commitment to a peaceful resolution despite its growing maritime power. 

The two sides have realized that direct dialogue and negotiation is the only viable way to resolve the disputes. The framework has been drafted by translating pressure into motivation, and seeking commonality while reserving differences.

The adoption of the framework demonstrates China’s insistence on peaceful development and reinforces its image as a responsible world power. Easing of tensions in the South China Sea will also create a necessary favorable external environment for the “Belt and Road” initiative. For ASEAN, the agreement on the framework meets its own security concerns and is reflective of its core position on regional affairs. More importantly, the framework allows the Asia-Pacific region to redirect its attention to the much more pressing issue of terrorism, which is more realistically threatening.

At the same time, the completion of an effective code using this agreed upon framework as a basis remains an arduous task which will likely face persistent challenges.

Following the China-ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi envisioned three steps of establishing the code. The first is that the 10 ASEAN member countries and China will confirm their commitment to the framework. With all the necessary preparatory work done, the code of conduct will enter the next phase of substantive negotiations at a proper time within this year. Second, the approach to negotiations and guiding principles will be discussed at the Joint Working Group’s Meeting on the Implementation of the Declaration of the Code of Conduct at the end of August. Third, after the aforementioned preparatory work is completed, and on the condition that there is no major external interference and the situation is generally stable, leaders of China and ASEAN member countries will officially announce the start of the next step to negotiate the text of the code at the China-ASEAN Leaders’ Summit in November this year. 

In fact, each step forward on code promotion has not been easy. Recently, foreign media cast carping comments and sowed discord about the framework, which signaled that countries outside the region would not easily cease interference with future negotiations and the implementation of the code. In addition, there is also the possibility that some ASEAN member countries will continue to make trouble in the future negotiation process out of their own vested interests and with the intent to contain China.

Therefore, to jointly maintain the hard-won stability in the South China Sea, more diplomatic wisdom and strategic composure is needed to enhance mutual trust. 


Zhang Jie is a research fellow from the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Editor: Yu Hui

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