The prospect for negotiations on a Code of Conduct (COC) in the East Sea seems to be moving in a favourable direction but one doesn’t know the wind will change?
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reaffirmed the urgent need to speed up the Code of Conduct negotiation process. ASEAN is ready to kick off negotiations on the Code. China, after initially asserting it would only participate in completing the Code “when conditions are ripe”, has now said more specifically that Beijing could start the process in September this year, according to Reuters. All the above-said signals show that there are sufficient grounds to hope for the birth of a complete Code of Conduct in the coming time.
However, international observers are not entirely optimistic.
Talking with Thanh Nien (Youth) newspaper, Dr. Euan Graham (S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University) said that of course, the US and concerned parties always hope for the birth of a strong and effective Code. However, the role of the US stops at supporting the Code drafting process, with the final decision-making remaining in the hands of ASEAN. It’s not difficult to realise that ASEAN will remain divided on the format and approach to the Code, Dr. Graham said. He added that while the Philippines always urges tougher terms in the draft Code, other ASEAN member states are worried that this will vex Beijing, which has a lot of economic influences on some countries in the bloc.
According to AFP, ASEAN member countries on July 12 struggled to make a final statement after their meeting in Cambodia due to disagreements and deep tension relating to the contents of the statement. In short, the above issues revolved around the Philippines’ determination to include in the statement, the recent developments in the East Sea, particularly a clash with China in the Scarborough shoal. However, host Cambodia resolutely refused this request.
China is now the largest investor and donor in Cambodia with numerous projects in important areas. Talking with Thanh Nien Newspaper, Cambodian post graduate Phou Sambath who is studying at the Taiwan-based Chenggong University affirmed that “In the context when Cambodia is “thirsty” for foreign aid as currently, China is our first choice”. According to Benjamin Ho (the S.Rajaratnam School), China has constantly built up its influence as a generous donor in Southeast Asia and “is willing to pour money into wherever needed”. Ho added that “Look at the rotating chairs of ASEAN in the coming years (Brunei, Myanmar and Laos), it’s not hard to understand why Beijing only wants to hold bilateral talks on issues relating to the East Sea”. That’s not to mention the fact that if the Code is born, its feasibility remains a big question. Dr. Graham said “I have not seen China’s willingness to go beyond the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the East Sea (DOC) which was adopted 10 years ago. So, whether the Code is born, people still have the right to doubt its feasibility and weight.”
Iskander Rehman, a maritime expert in Washington, concluded that if China continues with its vague tone about the Code negotiations, we totally have the right to raise the question that whether Beijing wants to move towards the birth of the Code or only wants to postpone it indefinitely?”
Does flexibility triumph over firmness?
According to international news agencies, during a meeting with her Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Phnom Penh on July 12, US Secretary of State Clinton was said to be softer to avoid tensions in the relations with Beijing. At the 2010 Summit, Clinton affirmed that the US has “national interests” in the East Sea, a move that international observers said “heated” China.
Experts said that this new development may be an optimistic prospect. Dr. Mark Valencia from Hawaii, the US, told Thanh Nien that in every circumstance, it is necessary to prevent the US-China confrontation from falling into the worst situation. This confrontation will make the East Sea situation worse and ASEAN more divided. It is not a bright scenario for regional security and stability. According to Dr. Valencia, China always makes unpredictable moves and offers odd opinions in the name of protecting sovereignty, affecting the maritime freedom in the region. But Beijing might also have realised that it went rather too far with the last moves.
Therefore, to increase solidarity within ASEAN, experts said whether this bloc, particularly the Philippines, should relent a little. Dr. Valencia said that it’s true that China isolated itself by “odd” sovereignty protection viewpoints. It’s time to look towards a complete and strong enough Code of Conduct. It should be remembered that once Beijing reserves its viewpoint and continues unyieldingly with them, no Code will ever be born.