How important is Asean-China Code of Conduct in SCS for regional stability, peace and security?

LAST July 13, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and China came together in Jakarta, Indonesia, and agreed on guidelines to accelerate and expedite the negotiations of the highly anticipated Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea (SCS). The guidelines were adopted in a meeting between China’s top diplomat Wang Yi and Asean foreign ministers in Jakarta, where the group was holding its annual foreign ministers and related meetings. This pivotal event marked a significant milestone, given that the negotiations on the COC have been stalled for some time because of various reasons, including the Covid-19 pandemic, which made it more challenging to hold face-to-face meetings.

On another note, it is worth noting that last October, during the 21st Senior Officials’ Meeting on the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in Beijing, Asean and China officially announced the start of the third reading of the COC text. This announcement marked the collective commitment of Asean and China to accelerate consultations on the COC, with the ultimate goal of swiftly establishing a COC that is effective, substantial, and in accordance with international law, notably the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), with the goal of transforming the SCS into a region of peace, friendship and cooperation.

Indeed, given the long history of COC negotiations between Asean and China, with the DOC having been signed back in 2002, though the progress of the COC negotiations seems slow, it is progressing toward a more formal COC.

BBM proposal

Moreover, amid such positive developments in the COC negotiations over the last few months, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. made an interesting proposal while visiting the US Pacific Command in Hawaii last week. Marcos said the situation in the SCS had become “more dire” and that the Philippines had approached other Southeast Asian nations, like Vietnam and Malaysia, “to make their own code of conduct.” With such a proposal, it begs to ask if, in any case, Asean countries will agree or not, and what are the implications of such a proposal on Asean centrality? Is Marcos trying to isolate or sidetrack China in the COC negotiations?

As far as the COC negotiations in the SCS are concerned, Marcos’ proposal to create a new COC among Asean members only with overlapping maritime and territorial claims in the SCS, potentially sidetracking or isolating China may not gain political currency as far as Asean member states are concerned.

There’s a long history of COC negotiations over the SCS, with the nonbinding DOC as the foundation of these negotiations, which have been progressing toward a more formal COC, though the process is relatively slow. In this regard, I don’t think Asean countries will just waste the time, energy, efforts, and resources poured into the COC negotiations between Asean and China over the years.

Second, the success of Marcos’ proposal will largely depend on the willingness of Southeast Asian claimant countries. I don’t think Malaysia and Vietnam will agree to such a proposal knowing that China, one of the strong contenders in the SCS dispute, is being sidetracked. I don’t think Malaysia, Vietnam, or both, or Asean as a whole, will compromise their good strategic, trade and economic relations with China over Marcos’ proposal for a new COC among claimant states of which China is not included. I don’t think this proposal is viable among Asean countries. Also, I don’t think sidetracking China in any COC negotiations on the SCS dispute is the best course forward. Excluding a relevant major party in any COC negotiations would only lead to further disputes in the SCS. In a regionally sensitive contested area like the SCS, the involvement of all parties is vital for regional stability. Unilateral actions or agreements can lead to regional power imbalances and tensions, whereas inclusive negotiations can promote regional cooperation, stability, peace, and security.

Moreover, China can’t be pushed aside regarding any negotiations on the COC in the SCS precisely because it is one of the claimant states alongside the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, and this makes China a central and crucial major actor in any negotiations or agreements on SCS disputes. Note that China claims sovereignty over most of the SCS as outlined by the so-called “ten/nine-dash line,” which overlaps with the territorial claims of several other countries in the region, including the Philippines. Hence, it is unlikely that China will step aside from any discussions and negotiations concerning the contested SCS.

Reality check, and just to be blunt about it, China’s diplomatic influence in the Asean region, partly due to its economic might, it being the largest trading partner of almost all, if not all Asean countries, means that it can’t simply be sidelined. Southeast Asian countries would most likely prefer to engage China to secure their own national interests, which is a pragmatic course of action, rather than confront and sideline China over the SCS dispute. Note that Asean and China are each other’s largest trading partners. Trade between the two is valued at about $975 billion. China is also the fourth largest source of foreign direct investment for Asean, with a value of $13.8 billion in 2021.

Furthermore, engaging China in any negotiations on a COC in the SCS lends legitimacy to the process. Ignoring China’s claims and actions would not be practical or realistic given the current status quo and could lead to increased tensions or conflict. Note that China is a key player whose participation is essential in any substantial COC negotiations or agreements about the disputed SCS. Not recognizing this fact is a futile exercise on the part of the Philippines and will lead nowhere but to the further escalation of the political tension between the Philippines and China, which, to be very frank and straightforward with everyone, will never be to the advantage of the Philippines.

Thus, the President should be reminded by his advisers that international diplomacy stresses inclusiveness and comprehensive dialogue in dispute resolution, recognizing that sustainable solutions require the consent and cooperation of all parties involved in the dispute. That’s pretty basic in international relations.

Asean centrality

On another note, Asean’s leadership and centrality in crafting a COC with China in the SCS is significant for regional autonomy over the regional security architecture. Asean leading the process of negotiations on COC with China underscores the importance of unity among member states in addressing regional security issues. A COC led by Asean could help mitigate the divide-and-conquer strategy (salami tactic) that larger and external powers like the United States might employ. An Asean-led COC is likely to be viewed as more legitimate and balanced. It would signal inclusiveness and a multilateral approach to conflict resolution in the region. Most importantly, Asean’s involvement is crucial for the effective implementation of the COC. A COC with the consensus of Asean and China is more likely to be respected and legitimate precisely because it has institutional backing provided by Asean as a regional intergovernmental body and can serve as a mechanism for preventing and managing disputes in the SCS.

Undoubtedly, Asean leadership and centrality in crafting a COC is essential for safeguarding regional interests and ensuring a stable security environment in the SCS. Engaging China in the process of COC dialogue and negotiations led by Asean contributes to regional stability. It also helps to manage the strategic dynamics between major powers in the Asia-Pacific region, acting as a buffer to the potential for conflict and tension escalation.

Source: The Manila Times

Prof. Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy

Prof. Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Institute of South-South Cooperation and Development (ISSCAD), Peking University, Beijing, China. She is currently a director and the Vice President for External Affairs of the Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute (ACPSSI), a think tank based in Manila. She also serves as the political/geopolitical analyst of ACPSSI. Currently, she is a Senior Researcher of the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI) and a Senior Research Fellow of the Global Governance Institution (GGI). She is also the President of Techperformance Corp, an IT-based company in the Philippines. Prof. Anna Uy taught Political Science, International Relations, Development Studies, European Studies, Southeast Asia, and China Studies. She is a researcher-writer, academic, and consultant on a wide array of issues. She has worked as a consultant with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other local and international NGOs.