Waters in the South China Sea could remain calm in the short term as countries focus on hammering out a code of conduct with China. However, that could change mid-year when a UN tribunal begins to process a complaint filed by the Philippines over the legality of China's claim to most of the sea.
At least four meetings have been scheduled early this year between China and member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to negotiate a code of conduct.
A more proactive approach by China to push for negotiations on a binding set of rules has been matched by unity within Asean, said Carl Thayer, a South China Sea expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.
"Countries would restrain behaviours in order not to upset that focus, because it's a hopeful one coming," Thayer said.
For years Asean has been pushing for a binding code that could provide guidelines for engagements in the intensely contested sea. Beijing was previously reluctant to negotiate such a code of conduct, insisting that territorial disputes should be dealt with bilaterally. But its position began to shift last year. In September last year, China and senior Asean diplomats held the first consultation on the code of conduct in Suzhou .
"China has belatedly found that a code of conduct is actually the same as what they are pushing for, namely putting aside disputes and focusing on joint co-operation," said Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
By March 30, the Philippines will have to submit a memorandum to the UN International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea outlining its case against China's so-called "nine-dash line", under which it claims most of the South China Sea.
The tribunal is then expected to send a draft memorandum to China for its response. Thayer says that if China declines to respond to the draft, it could result in a sooner than expected ruling by the tribunal. "This is a wild card, we don't know what way that's going," he says.