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What does Beijing want from the South China Sea code of conduct

Beijing seems cooperative in face of its goal for regional dominance

According to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Ji, China and Southeast Asian Nations have made “significant strides” in discussions on a Code of Conduct to reduce conflicts in the South China Sea.

Speaking at the news conference in Bangkok following the regular meetings between China and the ASEAN overseas ministers on 31 July, Mr Wang credited the momentum to “the honesty and commitment of all the sides.” “This signals fresh and significant advancement on the COC consultations and is a significant move towards the end of the consultations within three years,” said Mr Wang. Wang emphasised that the first phase of job on the Code of Conduct that will control China and ASEAN operations in the South China Sea was finished in advance.

China and ASEAN decided in May 2017 to start full talks on the contract and prepared a draft document describing each of the country’s positions at last August’s conference of its overseas ministers. A streamlined draft was endorsed at the most recent meeting.

Initially, the two parties directed at completing the first phase of the contract by the beginning of this year, so they are well ahead of timetable. But the standard component was to streamline the writing. As China performed the fast motion, ASEAN seems less passionate.

No surprise. No surprise. Even as it negotiates, China has persisted with its sabre-rattle in the South China Sea, and the timing of its deeds seems intended to accumulate stress. In April 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping ruled over a vast maritime show in, for instance, the South China Sea before an ASEAN summit.

Between the beginning of June and the beginning of July, China fired six ballistic anti-ship missiles in the waterways, ahead of the regular ASEAN Regional Forum on safety in Bangkok. Ministers from Japan, the United States, Australia, South Korea and other nations participated in the forum.

China released its first Defense White Paper in four years on 24 July. It stated in the paper that the South China Sea is an’ inalienable’ component of its territory and that China’ uses its national sovereignty to consolidate its infrastructure and to implement the required defence capacities on the coasts and the reefs of the South China Sea.’ Storage of ammunition and fuel, radar systems and runways up to 3,000 meters long is already planned on the Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef.

Against this background of muscle flexing, China started searching for oil in July in the exclusive financial area of Vietnam. Fishing ships from China and the Philippines also merged in the EEZ of the Philippines in June. In this event, about 20 Filipino fishermen were tossed into the ocean. The Code of Conduct should provide a structure to resolve such conflicts and disputes through communication.

Four ASEAN members— Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei — are caught up in South China regional conflicts with China. The other six ASEAN members do not participate immediately.

But ASEAN as a community called for rapid completion of negotiations on the standard of behaviour, concerning friction with China as a global problem in the South Sea. Beijing has been dragging its feet until lately, claiming that it had bilateral issues with the four participants of the ASEAN.

But now the positions appear to have changed. China seems a little more interested in the system than ASEAN. Why? Why?

In a high-profile situation introduced by the Philippines, China claimed a big part of the South China Sea, but a global court board held in The Hague, the Netherlands, dismissed Chinese allegations in July 2016. The court found that the nine-dash line was based on the UN and had no foundation in international law. The Law of the Sea Convention, or Unclos.

China has ignored the ruling, but as a United Nations signatory. It’s awkward to be seen as an assassin, contract. China thinks that it can use the rules of behaviour to get rid of the decision.

Another adding element is the tensions in the Taiwan Strait resulting from the Beijing conflict with the USA. China is keen to conclude the South China Sea agreement with ASEAN so that it can concentrate on Washington.

Despite China’s evident shift of mind on the rules of behaviour, it is too early to regard it as a consensus win. The further intentions of China are expressed in the agreements.

First, China is bargaining with not ASEAN as a whole, but the top, respective ASEAN countries. The first phase of the design phase dealt with the document of the contract as eleven distinct suggestions, one from China and one from every state of ASEAN instead of two, one from China and the other from ASEAN.

ASEAN works to build a single society. In internal agreements, it usually talks with one tone. The diplomatic article reports that the ASEAN members are presently pursuing only two pacts with countries other than own nations: the Code of Conduct and the Asian Asian Free Trade Agreement of 16 states, the Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

The diplomatic source said that China pressed hard for the 11-party agreement when the Code of Conduct talks were launched. The regional conflicts between China and each of the 4 ASEAN members involved reflect China’s situation. This strategy maximises its leverage and, if needed, enables it to stretch its bones.

Secondly, China unilaterally laid a 3-year date for completion of the draft contract, with Prime Minister Li Keqiang suggesting this concept at the November 2018 China-ASEAN conference. The time limit is essential as ASEAN members hold international meetings in a three-year rotation.

Since 2018, the Philippines has served as the ASEAN dialogue coordinator with China. Before the Philippines ‘ presidency expires in 2021, China would like to conclude the formation of a system of behaviour.

President Rodrigo Duterte, in contrast to his counterpart who held an active stance in the Philippines’ land conflict with China, held a weaker position in the hope of winning financial assistance from Beijing. Duterte entered place soon before the judgment against China of the international arbitration tribunal.

According to international reports, China has three primary Code of Behavior requirements; the Treaty of Unclos should not contain it; combined army manoeuvres with nations beyond the region should have the previous approval of all sides to the contract.

ASEAN can not acknowledge such requirements as they would invalidate the Court’s decision on China’s nine-dawn row and seek to curtail the regional influence of the United States and Europe. “ASEAN has no hurry and has no prospect of concluding the COC by oddly compromising,” one embassy outlet said.

In contrast to the first phase of drawing, which the document reads, ASEAN and China will find themselves confronted with challenging talks to bridge huge divisions in their roles.

ASEAN confronts the task to maintain a united front over the South China Sea, as some participants like Cambodia are more disposed towards the place of Beijing.

The Code of Conduct should regulate the operations of the South China Sea signatories. If, however, ASEAN creates a hurried decision, it will strengthen its stance. It could be compelled by a deal which provides China carte blanch in the region.

The issue is whether and how ASEAN can remain united without China’s intimidation. The discussions will check the raison d’être of the Southeast Asian group.

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