Beijing and Asean’s long-awaited South China Sea code of conduct inches forward

·4 min read

China and the Asean nations have agreed on part of the text of the long-waited code of conduct for the South China Sea, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in an address in which he described the US as “the biggest troublemaker” in the disputed waterway.

During a virtual summit with his counterparts from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Tuesday, Wang also warned against “external interference” in the South China Sea, in a pointed rebuke to the US. Up to a third of world trade passes through the contentious waters, which are subject to a number of competing claims.

The resumed negotiations on the code of conduct – including agreement on its preface – “demonstrated once again that as long as the common political will to move forward with consultations is maintained, no difficulty can stand in our way, whether it be a raging epidemic or external interference,” Wang said, according to a Chinese foreign ministry readout.

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Wang said Beijing would never make further claims in the South China Sea and promised that China would not take any unilateral moves to intensify disputes over the waterway.

“At the same time, we must be vigilant that individual extra-regional countries are openly intervening in territorial and maritime disputes in the region, sowing discord between China and Asean countries, sending a large number of advanced ships and aircraft to provoke around, and have become the biggest spoilers of peace and stability in the South China Sea,” he said.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi addresses his Asean counterparts via video link. Photo: Handout
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi addresses his Asean counterparts via video link. Photo: Handout

“The South China Sea is not, and should not become, a gladiatorial arena for great power games, and we cannot allow them to undermine the good situation of peace and stability in the region.”

Wang said that as close neighbours, China was committed to stand with Asean countries in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and would continue to support Asean’s centrality. So far China has supplied more than 190 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to the region.

Southeast Asia has emerged as an arena for the strategic competition between China and the US, with both sides stepping up their engagement with regional players.

Last week, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin became the first cabinet minister from the Joe Biden administration to visit the region. Later this month, vice-president Kamala Harris is expected to become Biden’s highest-ranking official to tour Asia, when she makes her first official visit to Singapore and Vietnam. She will also become the only US vice-president to visit Vietnam.

Harris’ office said her trip would “build on the Biden-Harris administration’s message to the world: America is back”. The visit is aimed at rallying international support to counter China’s growing global influence.

“We do not want to see any country dominate that region or take advantage of the power situation to compromise the sovereignty of others,” a senior White House official said. “The vice-president is going to underscore that there should be free passage for trade, throughout the South China Sea, and no single country should disrespect the right of others.”

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the launch of a “strategic dialogue” with Indonesia during his meeting in Washington with Retno Marsudi, the Indonesian foreign minister. The two countries also committed to work closely on the fight against Covid-19, as well as strengthening their trade and economic ties, and defending freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Blinken is also set to join five virtual summits with his Asean counterparts this week, when he is expected to raise concerns about China’s human rights record and “coercion” in the South China Sea, according to the US State Department.

Beijing has pushed hard for a quick conclusion of the code of conduct, which it said could regulate the activities of China and Asean members and avoid conflicts in the South China Sea.

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The framework for a code of conduct was agreed in 2017, although the decision to keep the draft text private was criticised as an effort by Beijing to block the US from getting involved. Most of the resource-rich waterway is claimed by China, but this is contested by Asean members Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia.

Diplomats from China and the Asean countries completed a first reading of the code’s draft negotiating text in July 2019, a move that Beijing touted as “major progress”. Since then, there has been no significant movement – mostly because of the pandemic, which made face-to-face talks more difficult.

The two sides held their first senior officials’ meeting since the outbreak to negotiate further progress on the code of conduct in June.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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