Betting On Neighborliness In The South China Sea

Tensions in the South China Sea result in new agreement.

China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have agreed to an initial draft of a code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, to which various nations lay claim. The draft COC, which serves as the basis for future negotiations, will be open to revisions. While the organization hasn’t released an official version, media reports say that navigation, fishing, environmental protection, oil and gas rights and military cooperation are discussed in the document.

For China’s neighbors in ASEAN, more rules-based relations with their powerful and assertive trading partner through such agreements are likely to pay economic dividends and reduce the potential for conflict. The draft also offers an opportunity to prove that ASEAN can accomplish major diplomatic goals despite the varied interests of its members and its consensus-style decision-making.

But deeper conflicts may emerge as they near binding agreement. Negotiations took place in the shadow of China’s rapid development of military capabilities in the South China Sea, despite competing territorial claims from ASEAN members and a 2016 UN ruling challenging China’s assertion of sovereignty there. “China wants to present a more cooperative face as international criticism is increasing,” says Huong Le Thu, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “The debate on rules-based order—which mostly points at Beijing’s disregard for international law—is gaining momentum.”

Beijing had proposed a controversial item for the draft COC requiring ASEAN members to receive approval from other members before conducting military exercises with any external powers. This would limit military cooperation between ASEAN members and the US, Japan, Australia, India and other countries.

Can the regional association hold together in the face of such pressures? Perhaps. “ASEAN will continue to struggle over diverging interests,” says Le Thu. “But the challenges along the line could reach an inflection point in which the common regional interests would be at such a high risk that they would have to act together.”