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
“[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.
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.”
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.
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