The idea of a so-called “code of conduct” in the South China Sea has been around for several years. But actual negotiations between the two parties – China and ASEAN, the Organization of Southeast Asian Cooperation – did not begin until 2019.
The South China Sea is rich in gas, oil and fish and is an important transportation route from heavily industrialized Asia to the Middle East and Europe. More than a third of the world’s trade passes through the narrow Strait of Malacca.
Great power struggle
But in terms of military strategy, interest in the South China Sea has increased in recent years. In addition to a number of strategically located small archipelagos, the region also includes the strait separating mainland China from Taiwan, the democratically governed island that China considers part of the People’s Republic of China and which it intends to take back. With the growth of China’s power and muscle, its naval and military presence in the maritime area has expanded and concerns about a military conflict are growing.
Taiwan is a strategic partner of the United States, and the South China Sea has increasingly developed into an arena for measuring power between China and the United States. Both major powers conduct frequent military exercises and intensify their efforts to include neighboring countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
In July, tensions rose when Washington for the first time formally opposed China’s claims to large parts of the South China Sea, calling them illegal.
Keep the United States out
Negotiations on the code of conduct have slowed during the pandemic, but the parties have now agreed on parts of it, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post wrote, citing a statement by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
According to the statement, he also promises that China will not aggravate the conflict on its own initiative, but added that the United States is the “biggest troublemaker” in the region.
Beijing is usually only interested in negotiating with countries one by one, but because the Association of Southeast Asian Nations agreed to keep the draft code secret, and thus prevent the United States from interfering with it, it has reclaimed its practices, says Niklas Swannstrom, president of the association. Institute for Security Policy and Development (ISPD).
“On the Chinese side, they don’t want to involve the United States and if they do, they can agree to negotiate with other countries multilaterally,” Swanstrom told TTT.
China is stronger
China lobbied for the swift conclusion of negotiations on the code of conduct, according to the SCMP. Niklas Swanstrom thinks this is because Beijing wants to take advantage of the position of power it has gained during the pandemic.
– What we often miss internationally is how China has been very effective during the pandemic in advancing its own agenda, especially in its immediate region, he says.
The danger, however, is that China will gain too much power in the code of conduct, he believes, and he believes one should be careful about buying the message that is now coming from Beijing.
It would be a huge gain for China if it could establish a code of conduct with ASEAN without US interference. I think ASEAN is trying to build on its laurels before it knows how the United States will act under Joe Biden’s leadership.
Facts: The conflict over the South China Sea
Beijing claims the majority of the South China Sea, while countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia claim overlapping waters and islands. Since 2014, China has been building artificial islands for military use on reefs in disputed areas, which has angered many other countries.
In 2016, an international arbitration court ruled that China was not entitled to all of the waters it claims under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beijing rejected the ruling.
According to experts, the code of conduct being discussed now should take into account a number of aspects such as the geographic scope, the legal status of the code, how to ensure compliance with it, the punishment of violations, and the role of third parties.
The draft code of conduct is not public, and has been criticized and interpreted as an attempt by China to alienate the United States.
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