More 'substantive' deal on S China Sea

More 'substantive' deal on S China Sea

Goodwill between Asean and China has reached an unprecedented level as both sides are working diligently to conclude the much anticipated code of conduct on the South China Sea. The process, which began in 2002, has now reached a crescendo, though there are still issues and differences that need to be ironed out.

If everything goes as planned, Asean and China would complete the first reading of the Single Draft Negotiating Text (SDNT) of the Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea by the end of July. At the latest meeting in Hangzhou, China on May 17-18, senior officials from both sides made "substantive" progress on the SDNT. For the first time, a qualitative and positive word was used to describe progress on longstanding negotiations on the code of conduct that would help manage tensions in the South China Sea.

Asean and China are confident that the SDNT would be completed at the next joint working group meeting -- its 29th round -- scheduled for July 21-22 in Penang, Malaysia. Then, the draft would be presented to Asean and Chinese foreign ministers at the Post Ministerial Meeting, a day after the annual Asean meeting in Bangkok at the end of July.

It must be noted that despite some heated exchanges at the Hangzhou meeting, Asean and China agreed that their ongoing efforts are producing positive results in stabilising their relations and reducing tensions which have made their close and special relationship fraught at times. They have no intention to disrupt or delay the process. Still, it did not stop some Asean countries from expressing concerns about the rise of military activities, illegal and unregulated fishing, transnational crime, maritime pollution, depletion of marine resources, and the use of external force in the South China Sea.

According to online Vietnamese news agency, VN Express International, Vietnam's Deputy Foreign Minister Nguyen Quoc Dung called on all parties at Hangzhou to join hands and fully implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) and refrain from militarisation and complicating the situation on the disputed waters. Mr Dung also expressed concern over the complications caused by strategic rivalry among powerful countries, unilateral actions that go against international law as well as militarisation, as they would threaten peace and stability in the region and impact the COC negotiations.

At Hangzhou, Asean and China highlighted the importance of fully and effectively adhering to the DOC in ensuring security, safety, freedom of navigation and aviation in the waters. Regarding the COC, both sides pledged to do their best to achieve an "effective" code of conduct that in line with international law, including the internationally recognised United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Vietnam will host the next meeting of senior Asean-China officials later this year.

Truth be told, Asean countries want to have a binding COC that follows international laws. The word "effective" in front of the COC could be taken to mean that the document is binding without it saying so. It remains to be seen if both sides could work out and reconcile their differences, but Asean is well aware that the whole world is watching the group's talks with China on this pivotal issue, which has an impact on the region's peace and stability.

Two questions were being asked among officials after the end of their meeting. The first question was, what would happen after the first draft of the SDNT is completed? Obviously, both sides want to make sure that the remaining two readings of the SDNT will be completed as soon as possible -- including the streamlining of the text, and removal of redundancies.

The second question pertains to Beijing's proposal to establish a communications line between the foreign ministries of Asean and China, so that their official could discuss the issue, even when they are not in session.

Indeed, this time around China has shown more enthusiasm in accelerating the drafting process, urging Asean to increase the frequency of working group meetings or prolong the duration of each meeting in the coming months. China has reaffirmed its position that the draft SDNT would be completed by 2021. Brunei will serve as chair in that year. However, some Asean members objected to the proposal, saying that there is still sufficient time to work on the draft.

For China, 2021 is an important year as China is expected to become a xiaokang, or "moderately prosperous" society. At the 18th National Congress in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the idea of xiaokang, which would witness China doubling its nationwide GDP from 2010 levels. As such, the COC's completion would send a positive signal and augur well for the emergence of a new, prosperous China that can coexist with smaller neighbouring countries. Xiaokang is a part of Mr Xi's "Chinese Dream".

Still, there are two key issues related to the COC that remain unresolved concerning the review mechanism and the code's legal status. Senior officials from Asean and China will meet again later this year in Hanoi, Vietnam, to discuss these issues. It is hoped that the impasse would be broken during Thailand's time as Asean chair -- before it passes on the baton to Vietnam next year.

As the trade war between the US and China continues unabated, Beijing has been widening and deepening its rapport with Asean and other Asian countries -- including Japan, India and Korea. China has now placed Asean at the top of its foreign policy agenda. As such, any delay or disruption of the COC negotiation process would have negative repercussions on China's interests.

At the upcoming East Asia Summit (EAS) in November, Asean will present its Asean Indo-Pacific Outlook, which would outline future cooperation with countries in the Indo-Pacific region in a more holistic way. The Asean framework will focus on four key areas of cooperation -- maritime security, connectivity, sustainability and economic cooperation. It would be carried out through various Asean-led mechanisms.

Asean hopes that the success of the COC negotiations with China would help facilitate dialogue and ease anxieties among EAS members. They are meeting each other in early November at a time of great strategic influx coupled with wider divisions and polarisation on key global issues among them.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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