China and ASEAN countries are still struggling to make progress on a code of conduct designed to ease tension in the flashpoint South China Sea, according to diplomatic sources. At meetings earlier this week, ahead of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Phnom Penh, the 10 ASEAN members agreed on key terms for a legally binding code. However, ASEAN must get China to agree to the terms.
There are still disagreements over what the code should include and how it should be implemented, even within ASEAN. A joint statement to be issued by ASEAN foreign ministers was also held up as countries wrangled over whether to include a reference to recent clashes over the waterway between China, Vietnam and the Philippines.
Manila is leading a push for ASEAN to unite to persuade China to accept a code of conduct based on a UN law on maritime boundaries that would delineate the areas belonging to each country. Beijing has said it is prepared to discuss a more limited code aimed at "building trust and deepening cooperation" but not one that settles the territorial disputes, which it wants to negotiate with each country separately.
"ASEAN is likely to hail progress in talks with China towards agreement on a Code of Conduct. But those expecting a COC now will be disappointed: there lies a very long road ahead indeed," said Dr. Evelyn Goh, Associate Fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and Associate Professor of International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London.
"Even as Cambodia announced on Monday that the ASEAN countries had agreed on key points for the putative Code, a Chinese spokesman said that China would discuss the COC with ASEAN, but only 'when conditions are ripe'. He also stressed that, in Beijing’s view, the COC 'is not aimed at resolving disputes, but aimed at building mutual trust and deepening cooperation'."
"China’s position reflects its insistence that these disputes be settled bilaterally. China presumably objects to ASEAN countries developing a collective stance on the issue because it senses that its bargaining leverage would be diminished."
Dr. Goh added: "Yet, it remains unclear whether ASEAN has been able to overcome deep internal divisions on how to manage the South China Sea disputes. Specifically, it is unclear whether ASEAN’s latest agreed position would have the COC cover all of the South China Sea and the extent to which the non-claimant states are willing to bear the potential burdens of enforcing a binding accord. This perpetuates the lowest-common-denominator approach of a non-binding agreement emphasising assurance, but without credible deterrence and not requiring enforcement through sanctions."
China has warned other countries to avoid mentioning the South China Sea in formal discussions at the ASEAN Regional Forum later this week, despite US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s call for talks on the issue.
Speaking in Vietnam earlier this week, Ms. Clinton said the US would raise concerns over the South China Sea during meetings in Phnom Penh, involving envoys from 26 Pacific countries and the European Union.
Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi has told his Japanese counterpart Koichiro Gemba that he hopes Japan will appropriately handle problems in their bilateral relationship, stemming from a separate maritime dispute over the Diaoyu (or Senkaku) Islands. This morning, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Beijing does not accept Japan's objections over a "routine" patrol China recently sent to the islands.
Report: ASEAN struggles over maritime dispute with China [Channel NewsAsia (AFP), 11 July 2012]
Report: China Wants Sea Spat Off Asean Agenda As Clinton Urges Talks [Bloomberg, 11 July 2012]
Hillary Clinton Visits Laos Ahead of ARF
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has become the first US Secretary of State to visit Laos in more than five decades, as part of an Asian tour before she heads to Phnom Penh this week.
Media reports say Ms. Clinton's visit is the latest test case of the Obama Administration's efforts to pivot US foreign policy towards Asia and away from the Middle East. The last US Secretary of State to visit Laos was John Foster Dulles in 1955, during the Cold War. Laos was drawn into the US conflict with Vietnam, with the US dropping more than 2 million tons of bombs on supply lines and bases in Laos between 1964 and 1973.
Report: Hillary Clinton Reaches Out to Laos[TIME (AP), 11 July 2012]