China is hoping to agree on a “code of conduct” with Southeast Asia for the South China Sea next year. The Nikkei Asian Review reports:
The Chinese government aims to make substantial progress on a binding code of conduct for the South China Sea by the middle of next year, its representative in talks with Southeast Asia’s regional bloc said Tuesday.
Officials from China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations gathered here in Inner Mongolia to continue discussions on such a code that have been held intermittently since September 2013. Tuesday’s session was the first since an international arbitral tribunal ruled against sweeping Chinese claims over the sea July 12 in a case brought by the Philippines.
The parties present agreed to accelerate negotiations based on such texts as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, as well as to abide by a previous declaration of conduct inked by China and ASEAN members in 2002 to enhance peaceful dispute resolution. A draft framework for the code of conduct will be drawn up by mid-2017, according to Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin.
Beijing had previously been hesitant to agree to a multilateral code of conduct in the South China Sea, as it preferred to make deals bilaterally (where Beijing has far more disproportionate power). But something has changed in recent months. Perhaps ASEAN’s divisions are suggesting weakness to China, but more likely China is increasingly keen on getting a deal that doesn’t involve Washington.
This reversal can be read as an admission of weakness on China’s part, but that’s not quite right. The tactic fits nicely with China’s efforts—endorsed, a bit vaguely, by John Kerry—to have bilateral talks with the Philippines that also don’t involve Washington or Tokyo. If these efforts by China succeed, then the U.S. (and Japan) will effectively be sidelined. Which itself would be a win for the Middle Kingdom.
But it’s a big question whether China will be able to placate enough ASEAN countries to get a deal that it likes. With construction continuing on the Fiery Reef and elsewhere, it’s likely to be only a matter of time before China’s assertiveness once more scares off Southeast Asian officials. Since the Hague ruling, ASEAN has been disorganized and surprisingly (to many analysts) quiescent. But the fact that Malaysia and Indonesia can’t get along with each other doesn’t mean that they want to let China have its way. ASEAN didn’t fail to release a statement celebrating the Hague ruling because the member states (Cambodia aside) are feeling friendlier toward Beijing. That happened because there’s so much distrust in Southeast Asia. China isn’t going to have an easier time than the U.S. has getting unity in the region. (Just the other week, Jakarta made a big display of sinking Chinese fishing vessels to celebrate its independence.) If China pushes too hard, as it likely will, Southeast Asia will pull back and many countries will look to the United States and Japan for assistance. That’s been the dynamic for a while, and it’s hard to see how it might change soon.