Single solution can help calm waters of the South China Sea
The draft code of conduct Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi agreed to with his 10 Asean counterparts is a welcome step towards peace and stability
Resolving tensions in the South China Sea is an issue only for China and its Southeast Asian neighbours to negotiate. The draft code of conduct Foreign Minister Wang Yi agreed to with his 10 Asean counterparts in Singapore last week assures such an arrangement and understandably so; outside interference will only complicate sensitive and complex issues. Such like-mindedness is why the deal has been praised as a milestone in efforts to settle the dispute with all countries setting aside differing approaches in favour of working towards a single solution. It is the only way to ensure that the contested waters will one day be awash with cooperation, peace and stability. Wang put what has been achieved best, likening the process to China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations building a house together.
In the past, each country had its own idea of what the building would look like, but “now we have laid good groundwork for a single design”. It has taken 16 years of negotiations to get to this juncture, so expectations for a final code of conduct have to be realistic. The text of the draft document can hopefully be put to Asean leaders at their annual summit in November.
Details have not been revealed and no deadline has been set, nor should one be expected; a protracted bargaining process will be necessary to settle the maritime disputes involving China and Asean members Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Each has made concessions, a significant one being that Beijing is now willing to talk to Asean as a whole rather than with each country bilaterally. Strategic rivalry and trade tensions between China and the United States, with suspicions US President Donald Trump’s administration is trying to make governments choose sides, have led Beijing to now find it in its interests to move forward on the code.
Trump’s sparking a trade war with China is one matter; the sailing of American warships near Chinese-built islands in the South China Sea and encouraging allies to follow suit is another that is unnecessarily provocative and dangerous. The US has no part in the territorial or resource disputes and no right to interfere. Freedom of navigation is important to all countries to ensure the smooth flow of trade and the code should uphold that.
Talks will include use of fishing, oil and gas resources. But of immediate importance, with rival navies patrolling the waters, is avoiding accidents and misunderstandings and that is where events such as the inaugural China-Asean maritime exercises in October are important. Consensus will be necessary to formulate a code of conduct and with 11 nations involved, challenges lie ahead. But shared resolve is the best approach and a welcome step has been taken.