The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China are scheduled to start official talks in September in China to conclude a code of conduct covering the South China Sea, where enmity between China and some ASEAN countries is becoming fierce over long-standing territorial disputes. Although the talks are unlikely to go smoothly, both sides should persevere toward an agreement that reduces tensions.
The uphill battle faced by ASEAN negotiators is revealed by recent statements made by Chinese officials. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who was visiting Bangkok to attend a China-ASEAN forum to mark the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the China-ASEAN strategic partnership, on Aug. 2 said that territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved through bilateral talks. Three days later, he said the attitude harbored by some ASEAN countries that seek an early agreement on the code of conduct does not seem realistic or serious. He stressed the importance of holding detailed discussions so that consensus could be reached among all the countries concerned.
In 2002, ASEAN and China signed a declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea, but it had no binding power. ASEAN hopes to upgrade the declaration to a legally binding code of conduct. But it appears that China is not very enthusiastic about doing this as it would restrict China’s activities in the South China Sea. Having claimed almost all of the South China Sea as its own, China has taken steps to strengthen its effective control over disputed areas by stepping up naval activities and by prospecting for oil and gas resources.
China now has effective control over Scarborough Shoal, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. In January 2013, the Philippines called on an international tribunal under the U.N. Convention on the Law of Sea to declare China’s claims to virtually the entire South China Sea as “illegal and invalid.”
In May, Chinese ships began loitering near a Philippine-ruled atoll in the Spratly Islands to apply pressure on Manila. Earlier, in March, a Chinese naval ship opened fire on a Vietnamese fishing boat in the Paracel Islands.
In June 2012, China established Sansha City in Hainan Province to administer the Spratly and Paracel islands as well as Macclesfield Bank — an atoll of underwater reefs and shoals. In late April of this year, China organized a Paracel Islands sightseeing tour.
Although China agreed to the talks on writing the code of conduct, doubts remain about its commitment. The planned accord is considered indispensable for preventing future military clashes in the South China Sea. Thus it is all the more important for ASEAN countries at the talks to unite in dealing with China.
Japan, which is engaged in a territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, should consider what it can do to help China and ASEAN reach an agreement.