Thinking Beyond Politics

AFTER meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Singapore last week, the regional bloc and China announced a breakthrough in the drafting for the framework for a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, which would form the basis for future negotiations regarding an eventual COC.
On behalf of ASEAN, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishman announced in a news conference that the 10 ASEAN member states and China “put everything down in a single draft.” He clarified, however, that this “does not mean negotiations are over … [but] it is meant to generate a code of conduct that would ensure peace, stability, confidence so that we can continue to make collective progress.”
For his part, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi admitted that the agreement on the draft was a new and important step for the deliberations on the COC. Barring “external disturbances,” he said, the discussions should move forward.
The idea of a COC could be traced back to the early 1990s with ASEAN member states applying the association’s usual practice of conflict management in dealing with China, which was seen as altering the territorial status quo in the South China Sea. In 2002, ASEAN and China signed the “Declaration on a Code of Conduct (DOC) on the South China Sea,” a political statement of broad principles of behavior aimed at stabilizing the situation in the disputed waters and preventing an accidental outbreak of conflict in the area. After the signing, ASEAN and China were expected to negotiate and adopt a binding COC.
More than a decade after the signing of the DOC, however, the two parties have yet to begin the negotiation for the COC simply because they do not share the same objectives in the South China Sea dispute. While the ten small powers comprising the association prefer a COC that draws China deeper toward the ASEAN process of peaceful consultation and conflict-avoidance, China, as a great power, has neither interest nor inclination to be embedded into and constrained by a diplomatic process created and dominated by small powers.
Driven by its goal to dominate the South China Sea, China supported an incremental approach in which the conclusion of a COC is seen as a long-term rather an immediate goal.
In May 2017, China suddenly showed flexibility in dealing with the ASEAN as it announced that it is willing to negotiate on a framework for a COC on the South China Sea.
After claiming 80% of the South China Sea and delaying the negotiation of a COC, China suddenly extended an arm of cooperation with ASEAN. In early August 2018, ASEAN and China agreed on a “Single Draft South China Sea Code of Conduct Negotiating Text (SDNT)” that will be the basis for the negotiation of a COC. In its proposal for cooperation in SDNT, China tabled four proposals for the Promotion of Trust and Confidence between the two parties: a) (the conduct of) military activities in the region (that) shall be conducive to enhancing military trust; b) exchanges between defense and military forces including “mutual port calls of military vessels and joint patrols on a regular basis; c) undertaking of joint military exercises among China and ASEAN member states on a regular basis; and d) the creation of a notification mechanism on military activities if deemed necessary. This means the parties shall not hold joint military exercise with countries from outside the region unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objections.
The first three exhort ASEAN member states to acknowledge China’s naval power and presence in the South China Sea, in particular, and Southeast Asian waters, in general. They reflect China’s confidence as it was able to complete the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, fortify them with air-bases and seaports, and able to militarize without any strategic nor diplomatic cost.
By putting these proposals on the table, China hopes that the ASEAN countries will get used to the deployment of People’s Liberation Army’s Navy (PLAN’s) warships on their horizon, the same way as they have accepted as normal American, Japanese, and Australian naval presence in Southeast Asian waters.
The fourth proposal is intended to give China a veto on the ASEAN member states’ prerogative to hold military exercise with the American, Australian, and Japanese navies in Southeast Asia. If any of the ASEAN states would like to conduct a naval exercise with these countries’ navies, it requires mutual consent from China and the other ASEAN member states.
For Singaporean analyst William Choong, it was clear that “China was attempting to use the COC to reduce the presence of the US Navy and the Australian Navy in the South China Sea.”
This is the context of the latest development in the COC narrative. The Singaporean foreign minister admitted that the draft was “very rough,” as it only included the 11 countries’ “wish lists.” The draft text will be reviewed in meetings in Siem Reap in Cambodia and Manila in the Philippines before it will be formally endorsed by heads of states in the ASEAN summit in October.
However, whether this draft will be the framework of a COC negotiations is still unclear. Hopefully, there will be wiser and smarter heads in the regional association who will comprehend the gist of China`s stratagem in the negotiation for a COC. Otherwise, the ASEAN will be complicit in China’s ruse to win without actually fighting in the South China Sea dispute.
Renato Cruz De Castro is a Trustee and Convenor of National Security and East Asian Affairs Program of Stratbase ADR Institute.