This week the Association of Southeast Asian Nations appeared to make progress on addressing territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Following meetings in Brunei, the group announced that China had agreed to discuss a set of rules known as the “code of conduct” to avoid conflict in the disputed waters.
Last year's ASEAN forum ended without a consensus because of squabbles over the South China Sea. The group concluded its meetings without a joint statement for the first time in its history.
This year, the joint communiqué emphasizes adhering to an 11-year-old non-binding agreement among China and the 10-member states to peacefully handle competing claims in the South China Sea. It also calls for “formal consultations” on a code of conduct in September in Beijing. The talks are expected to take place among lower level officials and focus on steps to avoid conflict. They are not expected to discuss the territorial disputes.
Philippine Foreign Affairs Spokesman Raul Hernandez says the country welcomes this development.
“And that is exactly what we have been pushing for, for a long time now, that we should be able to conclude a code of conduct with China in order to govern the activities in the West Philippine Sea,” he said.
Hernandez uses Manila’s local name for the South China Sea.
Relations between the Philippines and China chilled significantly after a two-month standoff last year between their ships at Scarborough Shoal, which the Philippines says is well within its 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone, as designated by international law. Then this May, Chinese civilian ships and a frigate were seen in the vicinity of Second Thomas Shoal, which the Philippines claims.
China, Taiwan and Vietnam claim practically the entire sea, while the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have partial claims. The sea is believed to be rich in oil and natural gas, with abundant fishing and well-traveled sea lanes.
Of the claimants, the Philippines has been the most vocal about alleged Chinese encroachment into its waters. This week Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario denounced what he called China’s “increasing militarization” of the sea. The comment came after Chinese state media warned of a “counterstrike” against the Philippines if it continues to provoke Beijing.
Security analyst Carl Thayer of the Australia Defense Force Academy says this year’s ASEAN gathering is more cohesive because foreign ministers from countries without any sovereign stake in the sea worked hard to build unity after last year’s meeting.
“Overwhelmingly Indonesia has taken a role." he said. "Thailand has picked up the ball as country coordinator and tried to move it. And China is trying to not be isolated and not have the issue internationalized to an even greater extent. And there’s a new leadership change in China and it’s responding to these changes.”
Thayer says China’s agreement to consultations on a more binding code is a step in the right direction. But he says a lot will depend on how firmly it will commit to the terms of the code.