The Chairman’s Statement, which will serve as basis for the EAS Leaders’ Statement to be issued after the summit, again emphasized for the nth time the “improving cooperation” between Asean and China in crafting a Code of Conduct that has been in the incubating stage for 15 years since its adoption was agreed on in 2002.
Here is what the Statement says: “The Ministers welcomed the improving maritime cooperation between Asean and its partner nations. They also warmly welcomed the improving cooperation between Asean and China and are encouraged by the completion of negotiations on a framework of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, which will facilitate the work for the conclusion of an effective COC.”
Up to now Asean is still talking about a “framework” of the Code of Conduct, a mere outline on how it will be established. Critics have raised doubts about the efficacy of the Code of Conduct because the framework does not contain a legally binding and enforceable dispute resolution mechanism.
According to diplomatic sources, the two-page framework urges a commitment to the “purposes and principles” of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea but does not spell out any caveat for nonadherence.
And China could just ignore the Code of Conduct, the way it has ignored the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the South China Sea which totally demolished Beijing’s “nine-dash line” that it uses to claim sovereignty over almost the entire waters.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has set two conditions before a Code of Conduct can be concluded: 1) if the situation in the South China Sea is generally stable; and 2) if there is no major interference from outside parties.
China knows fully well that the United States, the “outside party,” has been saying it will continue to get involved in ensuring unencumbered passage for international shipping in the disputed sea lane. So how can there be a Code of Conduct with the “continued interference” of the United States?
The Department of Foreign Affairs has been noncommittal on the prospects of the final crafting of the Code of Conduct. DFA spokesperson Robespierre Bolivar said recently that in the Asean-China joint statement, the leaders were expected to again “welcome the adoption of the framework” and could call on the parties to begin negotiations on the Code of Conduct itself—something that has been repeated in past Asean meetings.
In other words, what we can expect in the coming meetings is the usual diplomatic gobbledygook: reaffirming the group’s commitment to work for the adoption of the Code of Conduct.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was more direct in his assessment of the issue. He said recently that it “will likely take years” before a Code of Conduct can be concluded.
Indeed, if we go by China’s double-talk and the reality in the region with the Philippines under President Duterte fast becoming a vassal state of China like Laos and Cambodia, there is no way that a Code of Conduct would be signed within the foreseeable future.
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Alito L. Malinao is a former news editor of the Manila Standard. He teaches journalism at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila and is the author of the book “Journalism for Filipinos.”