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Commentary: A sober assessment of the recent 'breakthrough' on the South China Sea

Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakirishnan called new developments to the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea "yet another milestone". There's no room for complacency until the code is agreed upon, says one observer.

Commentary: A sober assessment of the recent 'breakthrough' on the South China Sea

Satellite photo of Chinese-controlled Tree Island, part of the Paracel Islands group in the South China Sea, on Oct 12, 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Planet Labs)

SINGAPORE: A breakthrough was reached on Thursday (Aug 2). 

Following the adoption of a draft framework on the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea last August, barely a year later, China and the ten Southeast Asian countries of ASEAN agreed this week on a single draft document that will serve as a “living document and the basis of future code of conduct negotiations”.

Describing this new development as “yet another milestone”, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said that the parties arrived at the first draft during talks held a couple of months back in Changsha, China. Besides this single draft text, the 11 foreign ministers also agreed on the key modalities for future rounds of negotiations.

This is certainly a noteworthy development. But it is necessary to look past the fist pumps and delve into the realities.

Of course, the apparent rapid progress since August last year – from adoption of the draft framework to commencement of negotiations in March this year and then agreement of a single draft text this month – gives the impression of all things going well so far.

But is this really so?


True, there has been no more reported incidents of major aerial and maritime standoffs registered since August last year. But it does not mean the concerned parties have truly stopped whatever they have been doing, short of building new artificial islands.

Against the backdrop of regular wargames of varying force size in the South China Sea, Beijing has upped the ante where it comes to boosting its military presence in the area – deploying long-range missiles to the Spratly Islands, landing strategic bombers in the Paracel Islands, and testing electronic jammers in the disputed waters over the past year.

Such developments were unprecedented.

China has reportedly installed missiles on Subi Reef and other outposts in the disputed Spratly Islands. (AFP/TED ALJIBE)

And it was precisely because such actions ran counter to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2015 Rose Garden pledge to refrain from militarising the South China Sea, that the Chinese Navy was disinvited from the multilateral Rim of the Pacific exercise in Hawaii this year.

Chinese officials howled protest at this move, at the same time emphasising that non-participation in RIMPAC is a small price to pay for safeguarding the country’s sovereign rights and interests in the South China Sea.

The disinvite may have been a major loss of face for Beijing.

Yet, already beleaguered by the trade row with the United States, and international “debt trap” controversies surrounding Chinese overseas investments couched under the Belt and Road Initiative, it is not entirely unimaginable to think that the Chinese Government needs a foreign policy win – something that can help mollify the bad press it has received to date.

Not to forget that with the island-building work complete and fortifications mostly in place, all Beijing has to do is to further consolidate its gains in the South China Sea. So it finds itself now in a much stronger position to encourage progress, instead of foot-dragging, on the issue.

READ: Singapore’s ASEAN chairmanship a chance to make practical progress on South China Sea, a commentary

READ: How heated exchanges on the South China Sea between US, China can spiral into peace, a commentary 


Meanwhile, it is not difficult to see that ASEAN has every incentive to push for the single draft text. With the ongoing militarisation in the disputed waters and potential escalation in the future, the urgency felt by the bloc to make continued progress on the Code of Conduct is real.

ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Singapore

ASEAN too has to ensure its relevance. Progress on the Code of Conduct is key, indispensable, and almost like a “litmus test”.

It’s no surprise different ASEAN countries took different national positions as they work towards the draft text. Vietnam offered the strongest opposition to Beijing’s activities whereas there was little sign of serious resistance from other ASEAN member states.

The Philippines, which oversaw the promulgation of the draft framework last August in its earlier capacity as ASEAN chair, certainly has a significant role to play.

Taking over from Singapore after Thursday’s meeting to now serve as the bloc’s coordinator of ASEAN-China relations, Manila has every reason to facilitate this outcome if one notes recent developments on the South China Sea confronting President Rodrigo Duterte, who faces enormous pressure to do something on this front.

A recent Social Weather Station survey last month showed that four out of five Filipinos rejected the Duterte administration’s inaction on the issue, and 87 per cent of Filipinos polled wanted the government to regain control of the disputed waters.

Amidst public doubts over the lack of transparency on the Filipino government’s relations with China, Manila even had to clarify that there were no “secret deals” reached with Beijing on the South China Sea dispute.


That said, ASEAN countries would have likely agreed to reach a single draft text for the code to help ease subsequent negotiations. In any case, they can reserve their positions.

The devil still lies in the details – the wordings, language and tone that determine the texture of the eventual mechanism that all 11 countries deem fit to agree on. So the prospect of an eventual promulgation of this Code of Conduct is uncertain at best.

File photo of ASEAN flag and flags of ASEAN member countries. (Photo: AFP/Romeo Gacad)

Until the code is agreed upon, we can foresee that short of provoking major incidents in the disputed waters, the various claimants – not least China – will continue business-as-usual with their current set of activities, which could still be after all couched under the ambiguous and debatable notion of “defensive preparations”.

The likelihood of a maritime or aerial incident in the future also cannot be discounted, notwithstanding this latest progress on the Code of Conduct. 

Any miscalculation on the ground in such a contingency may potentially result in escalatory actions that may have dire consequences – possibly to the point of even derailing negotiations on the code.

As such, while observers may expend time ruminating over the details of the code, in the interim it is necessary for countries to get on with existing confidence-building measures - for example the inaugural ASEAN-China maritime exercise, the table-top phase of which is being held this week in Singapore and the field training phase is slated for later this year.

This activity will be based on the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), adopted at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium in 2014 in Qingdao.

CUES in particular will remain a significant bulwark against close-proximity encounters between opposing forces which will still continue to operate in the South China Sea.

While talks on the Code of Conduct persist, it is essential to not only implement CUES but also push for an expanded participation, especially among regional countries including those who are not signatories to this naval mechanism.

READ: To manage the South China Sea dispute, keep incidents at sea in check, a commentary

Whether the Code of Conduct materialises eventually, CUES in more holistic forms – extended to the aerial and underwater dimensions, and involving maritime law enforcement agencies – will become ever more critical in guaranteeing peace and stability in the South China Sea, and securing understanding among forces on the ground in avoiding conflict.

Koh Swee Lean Collin is research fellow with the Maritime Security Programme, at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, based in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Source: CNA/nr(sl)


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