In recent years, China’s militarization efforts in the South China Sea took center stage in discussions at regular meetings between leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its partners such as the United States, Japan and China. But ASEAN members took a softer approach on the issue at the meetings held last week in Manila and were reluctant to dwell on it.

This does not mean that China has changed its behavior. Beijing has pushed land reclamation and the construction of ports, runways and radar facilities on islands it built in disputed territories in the area. The 10 members of ASEAN should unite and pursue serious negotiations with China with the goal of establishing an effective code of conduct for the South China Sea to eliminate tensions in the area. China, for its part, should respect the rule of law and restrain its activities there.

Every year since 2014, when a Chinese government ship collided with a Vietnamese government vessel in the South China Sea, the ASEAN summit chairman’s statement expressed “serious concerns” over China’s conduct in the South China Sea including its land reclamations and “escalation of activities” in the area.

The previous Philippine government of President Benigno Aquino was at the forefront of a camp of ASEAN members that criticized China’s aggressive behavior aimed at establishing effective control of the disputed territories. In 2013, the Philippines took the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Last year, the court rejected China’s claims of historical rights over most of the South China Sea — a ruling that Beijing has refused to accept.

But since Rodrigo Duterte, elected president of the Philippines in 2016, became chair of the ASEAN summit for 2017, the tone of the chairman’s statement has changed. The statement released in April used a softer language in its section on the South China Sea: “We took note of concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments in the area.” Last week’s statement did not mention “concerns” at all and instead “took note of the improving relations between ASEAN and China.”

Apparently behind the ASEAN statements’ altered tone vis-a-vis China’s behavior in the South China Sea are China’s success in winning the Philippines and some other ASEAN members over to its side through economic cooperation, as well as changes in the posturing of the United States and Japan toward China for their own reasons. China promised large amount of economic aid to the Philippines when Duterte visited Beijing for talks with President Xi Jinping in October last year, when they reached an agreement that both countries will shelve the South China Sea dispute.

During his tour in Asia, U.S. President Donald Trump gave priority to his country’s economic interests under his “America first” policy. In his meeting with ASEAN leaders, Trump repeatedly called for applying pressure on North Korea over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, but is not believed to have discussed the South China Sea issue at all.

In the ASEAN plus three meeting involving leaders of the group and Japan, China and South Korea, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly refrained from touching on the South China Sea issue. As momentum builds for improving the strained Tokyo-Beijing relationship, Abe is said to have attached importance on arranging a trilateral meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang — who was also in attendance at the talks — and South Korean President Moon Jae-in in Tokyo at an early date. Such a trilateral summit has not been held since November 2015.

In 2002, ASEAN and China adopted the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which called on the parties concerned to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means without resorting to the threat or use of force. The next step is adopting a code of conduct for the South China Sea, which has yet to materialize.

The ASEAN summit chairman’s statement last week “reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability, maritime safety and security, rule-based order and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea” and “emphasized the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities by claimants and all other states.”

It is clear that any code of conduct to be concluded by ASEAN and China should have legally binding power to achieve the goals mentioned by the statement. The negotiations should never be done in a perfunctory matter. ASEAN and China must reconfirm the principle that the rule of law is the prerequisite for peace and prosperity and work out an agreement incorporating concrete steps that will implement the principle in the South China Sea in a visible manner.

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