JAKARTA – There are strong reasons to believe that newly appointed Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang will give his ASEAN counterparts a pleasant surprise by instructing China’s negotiators to make significant progress at this week’s meeting in Jakarta on the Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea. But ASEAN should realize that the agreement the two parties reached in 2002 can no longer serve as the basis for negotiations.
During his visit to Jakarta on Feb. 22, Qin promptly fulfilled his promise to Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi to speed up negotiations with ASEAN on the CoC, which has gone nowhere since the two sides agreed to start the talks just over two decades ago.
Indonesia will host the crucial meeting on March 8-10, to be attended by senior officials from the 10 ASEAN member states and China.
Concluding the CoC conclusion tops the agenda of Indonesia’s 2023 ASEAN chairmanship, apart from settling the prolonged crisis in Myanmar, where the military junta has continued to turn a deaf ear to international condemnation of its brutality against civilians.
The CoC is mandated by the Declaration of Conduct (DoC) agreed by ASEAN and Chinese leaders during the ASEAN Summit in 2002.
The 2002 joint statement said that China and ASEAN “reaffirm their commitment to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia”.
The two sides also “reaffirm their respect for and commitment to the freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea as provided for by the universally recognized principles of international law”, and “to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned”.
But the spirit of the 2002 agreement has been waning, as China seems to have lost its appetite, especially after a UN body refused in 2016 to recognize China’s so-called nine-dash line. Through this claim, China asserts its sovereignty over nearly the entire South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest areas for commercial shipping.
Meaningful progress is highly expected from the Jakarta meeting, although the CoC is nonbinding. At least the code will hopefully reaffirm “freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful settlement of disputes and self-restraint in the conduct of activities” across the South China Sea.
With this new round of negotiations, China will have a formal forum to discuss the dispute over the maritime area with ASEAN, as China has been facing “the rest of the world” in its bid to cement its grip on the South China Sea.
Tension is rising and is likely to heat up the arms race, as China’s policy has prompted the involvement of major powers, most recently reflected by the Philippines’ intent to have more military cooperation with the United States, Japan and Australia, as well as other “outsiders”.
In a joint press conference with minister Retno, Qin vowed to work with Southeast Asia amid rising tensions in the disputed waters.
“Both China and Indonesia will work with other ASEAN countries to fully and effectively implement the DoC [Declaration of Conduct] to speed up consultation of the CoC to jointly safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea,” Qin said after the meeting with Retno.
“[A] New cold war and competitiveness of great powers shouldn’t appear in the Asia-Pacific region. We believe that Indonesia and ASEAN will make their judgment and choice independently and autonomously,” he added.
The Philippines is in talks to possibly include Australia and Japan in the planned joint patrols with the US in the South China Sea, another sign of Manila’s concern over Beijing’s activities in the strategic waters. When this happens, it will be the first multilateral maritime patrol in the maritime area and will spark China’s anger.
Reuters reported last month that Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr and his host Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida agreed to increase the two countries’ defense cooperation, allowing Japanese troops greater access to Philippine territory, including for training exercises to respond to natural disasters and humanitarian needs in the Philippines.
Manila has inked a similar treaty with Washington.
Kishida and Marcos also agreed to strengthen economic and cybersecurity cooperation. Kishida also confirmed Japan’s continuing assistance to the Philippine coast guard to reinforce its capabilities, including the improvement of port facilities at Subic Bay, a former US naval base.
There are reports that the Philippines is also being lured to join the Quad, an informal strategic dialogue comprising the US, Japan, India and Australia. AUKUS, the Australia-United Kingdom-US security pact, is another multilateral alliance that has openly announced its intention to be more active in the South China Sea. Clearly, the primary goal of both the Quad and AUKUS is to contain China.
China also has unfinished business with Indonesia regarding the South China Sea. The UN recognizes Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the waters off Natuna, which overlaps China’s nine-dash line. China says its fishermen have frequented the waters as their fishing ground for centuries.
In another development, China demanded in December 2021 that Indonesia stop drilling for oil and gas in the waters it claimed were within Indonesia’s EEZ.
Both ASEAN and China need a CoC that will help deescalate tensions, not only between the two parties but also between China and the rest of the world. ASEAN is at least a partner China can trust, as evident in their long and mutually beneficial partnership.
The ability of China and ASEAN to conclude the much-awaited CoC for the South China will provide a basic norm on how to behave in the region.