'Toothless' code seen as victory for Beijing

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 July, 2012, 12:00am

A landmark Asean proposal to govern tensions in the South China Sea lacks any new enforcement measures - an outcome some diplomats and analysts say represents a potential diplomatic victory for Beijing.

For months, China's envoys have courted individual states within the Association of South East Asian Nations to limit the grouping's role in South China Sea disputes, which Beijing insists should be handled via one-to-one talks with claimants.

Asean's draft of its Code of Conduct was completed this week and handed to Beijing for input, amid a push to finalise it by the end of the year. A copy of 'elements of the code' seen by the South China Morning Post shows it ties dispute resolution measures to the UN's Law of the Sea and Asean's existing provisions.

'Of course we expect China to further weaken it and object to some things, but right now there is nothing in there that is really going to annoy Beijing,' said one veteran Asean envoy. 'You could say it lacks punch and in that regard is at least a partial victory for Beijing's diplomatic manoeuvring. But at least we are keeping them at the table.'

The South China Sea is expected to dominate Asean's Regional Forum on security starting today, with Japan set to toughen its stance, diplomats say. That follows yesterday's formal Asean-China ministerial meeting in Phnom Penh, which was attended by Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and deputy Fu Ying.

China and the Asean powers 10 years ago agreed on a broadly defined declaration of conduct for the South China Sea, which Fu said calls for consideration of a code of conduct 'when the time is ripe'.

'But Minister Yang stressed a very important point: the declaration is agreed by all of us [China and Asean] and it requires all of us to implement. For instance, if there are countries not abiding by the declaration, then it would not be conducive towards enhancing mutual trust, and also not constructive in moving us towards the discussion of a code of conduct.'

Beijing has already exempted itself from the Law of the Sea's dispute settlement measures, while the enforcement regime under Asean's Treaty of Amity and Co-operation has never been made operational.

Many measures advocated by the Philippines, including steps to clarify precise claims, have been removed. Dr Ian Storey, of Singapore's Institute of South East Asia Studies, said there was little concrete in the draft that would constrain actions by claimant nations to 'build sovereignty'.

'It completely lacks teeth. And it was the prospect of some sort of enforcement teeth to curb excesses and aggression that people, inside and outside of Asean, were hoping to see just a couple of years ago.'

In that regard, the document reflected the divisions within Asean over how hard to push China, he said.

While claimants, led by the Philippines and Vietnam, have been keen to stand up to China over the South China Sea through the grouping, others, such as Cambodia and Thailand, have been increasingly resistant.

As well as the Philippines, Asean members Malaysia and Brunei claim part of the strategic Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. And, like China, Vietnam claims the Paracels and the Spratlys in their entirety.

Dr Surin Pitsuwan, Asean secretary-general, said the draft still represented a milestone in South China Sea mediation.