Code of conduct with China in disputed sea held unlikely
WASHINGTON/TOKYO—It remains unlikely that China would ever agree to a code of conduct governing actions in the disputed South China Sea, even as having one would mean stability in the sea region, officials say.
Marvin Ott, a scholar in Southeast Asia Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, said such a code would not be useful to the Chinese government, which has ignored a UN-backed tribunal’s ruling last year that favored the Philippines.
“China will never agree to a real code of conduct,” said Ott, who was a professor of national security policy at the National War College.
Ott explained that an actual code would “circumscribe, delimit, and constrain China’s freedom of action in the South China Sea” where it has been monitored to have installed weapons, including antiaircraft systems, in seven artificial islands it has built there.
No conclusion in sight
Murray Hiebert of the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said that China intended to make the negotiations drag on as it had for more than a decade.
He agreed with Ott that the Chinese simply wanted to talk, noting that the code has been negotiated for the past several years without a conclusion in sight.
“China will go another 15 years of talking if that is necessary,” Ott said.
The two experts separately met last week with 10 Filipino journalists, including from the Inquirer, who are part of the US State Department Foreign Press Centers reporting tour.
Hiebert, a CSIS senior adviser, said that not even President Duterte’s charm offensive to China could get a code done this year.
“It is not the year to get it done. Can they get some basic framework done? It depends how you define framework. I think there is some possibility of getting progress, [but] I think this is still a long work in progress. I think China’s goal is to make this thing drag on for as long as possible,” Hiebert said.
Takahara Akio, an expert on international relations at the University of Tokyo, stressed that whether or not a code would actually work remains questionable, even as having one would still remain beneficial.
While most Southeast Asian countries did not trust China, he said the Philippines was right to push for the passage of the code as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) this year.
“They (China) signed an agreement in July (last year) after The Hague ruling with Southeast Asian nations that they will not construct islands,” Takahara said. “That’s what they said, that’s what they signed, but whether they can implement the agreement, no Southeast Asian nation will believe the word of the Chinese now.”
“The Chinese have said many nice words but implementation is different. In three or four years time, if they can implement or not, depends on many things including Southeast Asian solidarity, US policy,” he stressed.
As far as the Philippines is concerned, the Duterte administration’s dealings with China pertaining to the territorial dispute was on the right track, Takahara told the Inquirer.
“I think it’s right for President Duterte to make good use of China’s economic rise. I think that’s what we all do. I think it’s right of President Duterte to say to Prime Minister (Shinzo) Abe that he takes international law seriously,” he said.
Mr. Duterte, however, should also make it clear to the Chinese that Manila highly regards international law.
“We do not want a power-based order. We want a rules-based order,” Takahara said.
“China is waiting for the time. If possible they would like to win without fighting so they are increasing their presence bit by bit and overwhelm the others (countries),” he said.
Claim raises questions
China claims almost 90 percent of the resource-rich South China Sea through what it calls a nine-dash line. This was invalidated by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague in a July ruling last year, in a major and legal victory for Manila over its dominant northern neighbor.
China’s claim raises questions on freedom of navigation in the area that is a major trade route among nations.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay this month expressed optimism that the 10-nation Asean and China would conclude by midyear a framework for the code, a legally binding document aimed at easing tensions in the resource rich sea region.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.