Details are still emerging, but it looks like China and ASEAN have taken another step toward an understanding on the South China Sea, agreeing to a framework on a maritime code of conduct. Reuters:
After a meeting between Chinese and ASEAN officials in the Chinese city of Guiyang, China’s foreign ministry said the framework had been agreed upon, although it gave no details of its contents. […]
All parties “uphold using the framework of regional rules to manage and control disputes, to deepen practical maritime cooperation, to promote consultation on the code and jointly maintain the peace and stability of the South China Sea”, it added.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhemin, in comments carried on state television, said the framework was comprehensive and took into account the concerns of all sides.
But he called on others to stay out, apparently a coded message to the United States.
“We hope that our consultations on the code are not subject to any outside interference,” Liu said.
China and ASEAN have been promising (and failing to achieve) a code of conduct for the past 15 years, so it may be premature to tout this as an achievement before the ink is dry. But the Chinese are already stating that the framework could be finalized by August, and they would probably not be raising expectations if a some kind of viable deal wasn’t at least within reaching.
As for China’s sharp rhetoric warning against external interference, it may well get its wish. The Philippines, which is chairing ASEAN this year, has lately been echoing Beijing’s line warning Washington to stay out of the South China Sea dispute. And the Trump administration has so far been missing in action, letting Beijing take the lead on bilateral talks taking a hands-off approach where the Obama administration got heavily involved.
Under these circumstances, China may try to seize the opportunity and wrap up these negotiations. The code of conduct will not be legally binding but will count as a diplomatic coup, demonstrating that China and its neighbors can resolve their differences just fine without Washington’s help.