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Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attends the China-Asean leaders’ meeting via video link on Thursday. Photo: Xinhua

South China Sea: China asks Asean for quick resolution to code of conduct

  • Chinese Premier Li Keqiang urges neighbours to overcome pandemic distractions and speed up negotiations
  • Observers say growing tension between Beijing and Washington may cause Asean members to tread cautiously
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called for the quick conclusion of a code of conduct for the South China Sea during a summit with leaders of Southeast Asian countries, as Beijing seeks to consolidate its influence in the region amid growing pressure from the US.
Speaking at a video summit with leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on Thursday, Li also pledged to deepen ties with the bloc to aid post-pandemic economic recovery, infrastructure construction and defence cooperation.
In a rare reflection of Beijing’s deep concerns over the negotiations for the code of conduct – the talks have been stalled since the Covid-19 outbreak in January – Li stopped short of mentioning Beijing’s three-year timeline to finalise the agreement by 2021 but urged regional players to “overcome interferences by the pandemic”.

“[Countries should] take a flexible and pragmatic approach to speed up negotiations to demonstrate to the international community that we have the wisdom and capability to take good control of the South China Sea and maintain the peace and stability of the South China Sea,” Li said, according to a transcript released by the Chinese government.

To expedite negotiations, China would be willing to host physical meetings “as soon as possible” when the pandemic situation allowed, Li said.

China and Asean started negotiations in 2013 on a supposedly binding code of conduct to regulate maritime behaviour in the strategically important waterway that is claimed by China as well as Asean members such as Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

But little progress was made until talks accelerated in 2016 after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejected China’s claims to the waters based on its “nine-dash line”. In 2018, China and Asean reached an agreement on a “single draft negotiating text” that would be used as the basis for the discussions.

Asean summit opens: South China Sea, Covid-19, US-China tensions in focus

During the China-Asean summit in 2018, Li proposed to finish the code by 2021 and the second reading of the negotiating draft began in January, but no progress has been made since then because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Observers in the region said it would be difficult for the parties to reach the original deadline of 2021 because face-to-face meetings were unlikely to take place and countries, worried by the growing rivalry between China and the United States, would be more cautious about moving ahead with the talks.

Le Hong Hiep, a fellow with ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, said Beijing might seek to move ahead with negotiations in an effort to keep Washington out of the picture.

“China is trying to push the process to show that China can still work with Asean to address the dispute, and external countries like the US should not meddle in the dispute to make it more complicated,” he said.

“In that sense, deepening US-China rivalry may encourage China to accelerate the negotiations.”

What’s China’s ‘nine-dash line’ and why has it created so much tension in the South China Sea?

Wu Shicun, head of China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said the 2021 timeline was likely to be postponed as countries were now focusing their efforts on their post-pandemic economic recovery rather than maritime cooperation.

“There would be more uncertainty if the negotiations of the code of conduct were wrapped up as planned,” he said.

“Any increase in intervention by the external powers of the region, which would not be disciplined by the code of conduct, would also raise doubts about how the code of conduct would play a role in stabilising the situation and managing a crisis in the region.”

During Thursday’s summit, Li called for stronger economic ties with Asean, which is now China’s largest trading partner, bypassing the European Union and the US.

This weekend, China is expected to sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a multilateral free-trade agreement that includes the 10 countries of Asean as well as Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

What is RCEP and what does an Indo-Pacific free-trade deal offer China?

He Weiwen, an executive council member of the China Society for World Trade Organization Studies, said a strong trade relationship with Asia would be a priority for Beijing to offset pressure from the US.

“After three years of trade war with the US, China’s trade with Asean is increasing while [trade] with Europe has made some small progress and [trade] with the US is decreasing,” he said at a forum in Beijing on Thursday.

“So our focuses should be in Asia, Europe and North America as the trade amount combined with Asia and Europe account for 70 per cent [of China’s total trade volume].”

Additional reporting by Wendy Wu

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Beijing asks Asean for quick action on code of conduct