Asean must back code of conduct before talks can begin with Beijing
China and Vietnam are squaring off again over claims to the Paracel and Spratly islands. Both sides have moved a step further in a dispute that could deepen to a chasm. To them, the 1979 China-Vietnam border war was a fresh reminder that if small tensions escape scrutiny, they could later develop like a cancer. China has chided Hanoi’s claims to the islands, known in Chinese as Nansha, Xisha and Zhongsha. To rub salt into the wounds, Beijing has raised the status of these islands to a prefecture. Meanwhile, Hanoi has also announced sovereignty over the islands as part of a newly declared law of the sea. China has already protested against Vietnam’s action. After the cooling down at the Scarborough Shoals between China and the Philippines in recent weeks, diplomatic tension at the other end of the sprawling South China Sea has flared again.
At this juncture, it seems to be a pattern among the claimants to do whatever they can when they are least expected to do so. All claimants have upped their claims. Some are outward and assertive, while others have been discreet. Therefore, it is important that all parties stop campaigns to build up their presence, whether civilian or military, on the disputed islands. Until recently, both Asean and China were able to work out such arrangements.
Since senior Asean officials have completed a draft of desirable elements in the code of conduct for the South China Sea, it is time that Asean foreign ministers vet and approve it in their meeting next month, so serious negotiations can begin between Asean and China. Both the Asean claimants and concerned countries understand this brinkmanship very well, that their common positions must be unified and strong. Otherwise, China-Asean negotiations over the code of conduct will be protracted
further. This code of conduct is an important mechanism to manage these disputes and prevent war.
China has asked to join the Asean discussion on the terms of reference at the end of last year, but Asean wanted to finish the whole draft first. Given China’s increased assertiveness, other claimants would like the see the code enforced. But China must agree first. Without the code of conduct, claimants could undertake threatening activities.
Attention on the South China Sea has zeroed in, lately, on the US role in the region. In past months, the US-Philippine cooperation – especially the security aspect – was highlighted. Washington has made clear that it remains nuclear and called for all claimants to settle the disputes and overlapping claims in friendly ways. Doubtless, with Washington’s comments, Asean has become more confident to engage with China.
Asean needs to take this opportunity to assure China that their overlapping claims can be settled in friendly ways without dragging in other powers or international institutions. Beijing remains highly suspicious that Washington is behind ongoing regional efforts to highlight China’s threat, especially on the claims in the South China Sea.