China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations now have a single text to negotiate a code of conduct in the South China Sea, where four Asean member countries – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – are locked in territorial disputes with Beijing. The announcement, which came on Thursday during the Asean-China ministerial meeting, was hailed as a milestone by both sides.
However, the concerned parties are a long way from reaching a consensus on a final document, and the United States is likely to try to sabotage any agreement that could weaken its position in the region.
China and Asean have worked to finalise a code of conduct in the South China Sea since 2002. The recent breakthrough may be the result of a convergence of diplomatic and economic factors. Beijing is fighting a trade war with the US, and looking for ways to absorb the shock of its conflict with Washington. In this respect, the easing of tensions in the South China Sea with its Southeast Asian neighbours could expedite the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a prospective regional trade agreement it backs, which could mitigate the risk of isolation for Beijing.
For their part, Asean claimants to the South China Sea are wary of US President Donald Trump’s real commitment to Southeast Asia, as well as his protectionist policies. The US was Asean’s third-largest trading partner in 2017 (China and the European Union topped the rankings), but it ran a trade deficit of US$55.6 billion. Given this imbalance, Asean countries have automatically become potential targets of Trump’s trade tariff campaign, which has thus far hit both enemies and friends, and may need Beijing’s help in case of a commercial spat with the US.
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That said, disruption of Asean-China talks on the code of conduct may come at any time.
It has been reported that Chinese leaders have proposed joint patrols, military exercises and energy exploration with Asean countries in the region. According to Agence France-Presse, Vietnam is the only claimant to have challenged China’s construction of artificial islands in the disputed waters and their transformation into military bases. Beijing and Hanoi are likely to clash over the latter’s request that the code of conduct be legally binding under international rules – a clause that the Chinese leadership has always opposed.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last month that his country and Vietnam would join hands to uphold freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. Beijing has always been critical of Washington’s air and naval operations in the area.
The current geopolitical scenario in the South China Sea region is rather fluid, despite China’s success in mollifying other claimants, especially the Philippines, which won an arbitration case against the Chinese government in 2016. The ruling, handed down by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague and dismissed by Beijing, rejected vast Chinese claims to the contested waters.
In those days, the Philippines held joint naval drills with the US near a sector of the South China Sea where it has overlapping claims with Beijing. The exercises also saw the deployment of a US aircraft carrier. The Philippine navy was also involved in the Rim of the Pacific exercises until last Thursday. Three other Asean members – Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore – took part in the US-led drills, the largest of their kind in the world, from which China had been disinvited in May.
Manila’s air force is also taking part in the biennial Pitch Black, a premier multinational air power exercise in the Asia-Pacific region. Organised by Australia – a vocal opponent of China’s military rise in the Indo-Pacific arena – Pitch Black also involves the participation of aircraft from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
What’s more, Asean countries are taking countermeasures against China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea with a growing focus on coastal defence. Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have all expanded their coastguard capabilities and operations to counter Beijing’s military assertiveness in the region. Hanoi and Jakarta have also strengthened their arsenals of anti-ship missiles, and the Vietnamese navy has reinforced its fleet with Russian high-speed frigates and missile corvettes.
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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that an early conclusion of the code of conduct would be possible if future negotiations were not hindered by “external disturbances”. But Wang’s expectations will go unmet.
Meeting top Asean diplomats on Friday, Pompeo said that US would support the group in its bid to foster peace in Southeast Asia. However, last month, during the annual Australia-US ministerial consultations, Washington and Canberra emphasised that a code of conduct in the South China Sea should not prejudice “the interest of third parties or the rights of all states under international law”.
The bottom line is that the US will never accept a status quo where China maintains military outposts in the disputed Spratlys and Paracels, turning the stretch of the South China Sea between the two groups of islands into a “Chinese channel”. In that event, Washington is likely to work to derail a final deal between Asean and Beijing.
Emanuele Scimia is an independent journalist and foreign affairs analyst