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Southeast Asia, China Move Toward Elusive Deal to Avoid Conflicts in Contested Sea

  • Ralph Jennings

FILE - China's Liaoning aircraft carrier with accompanying fleet conducts a drill in an area of the South China Sea, in this photo taken in December 2016.

FILE - China's Liaoning aircraft carrier with accompanying fleet conducts a drill in an area of the South China Sea, in this photo taken in December 2016.

A group of 10 Southeast Asian nations will try again this year to sign documentation for a code of conduct aimed at preventing mishaps in the fractious South China Sea, as many have formed new bonds with Beijing despite its extensive, controversial maritime activities.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will make the framework for a code of conduct a "top priority" this year under Philippine leadership, the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila said. China and ASEAN have set a 2017 goal of approving the framework, the department's undersecretary told Philippine media in January.

Later approval of a full-blown code would spell out how claimant governments can avoid mishaps as their naval ships, coast guards and fishing boats work the same contested 3.5 million-square-kilometer ocean, stretching from Taiwan southwest to Singapore.

China is expected to support a code framework this year after half a decade of resisting it. Beijing's approval would cast itself as a cooperative neighbor, analysts say.

The world's No. 2 economy and No. 3 military power has sidestepped the code over the past decade because it prefers to avoid talks with groups of countries that can reduce its bargaining weight. It may also have feared the code would erode actual Chinese claims in the sea.

FILE - In this photo provided by Renato Etac, Chinese Coast Guard members, wearing black caps and orange life vests, approach Filipino fishermen as they confront them off Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, Sept. 23, 2015.

FILE - In this photo provided by Renato Etac, Chinese Coast Guard members, wearing black caps and orange life vests, approach Filipino fishermen as they confront them off Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, Sept. 23, 2015.

One-on-one negotiations

But since a world arbitration court ruled in July against Beijing's historical basis for claims to 95 percent of the sea, it has sought one-on-one negotiations with other claimant countries to ease the dispute without giving up holdings such as groups of islets off its southern coast.

"This is one way for the Chinese to show that they want peace in the South China Sea," said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a fellow with the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. "They are happy to be part of the negotiations between 10 governments in ASEAN and the Chinese government. China is an active part of the [code of conduct] implementation."

China has tapped its two major maritime adversaries, ASEAN members Vietnam and the Philippines, for bilateral talks covering the maritime dispute. The Philippines filed the court case against Beijing to push Chinese vessels away from its west coast, and in 2014 Vietnamese boats rammed Chinese counterparts near the Gulf of Tonkin over Beijing's approval for an oil rig.

FILE - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands after a signing ceremony in Beijing, Oct. 20, 2016.

FILE - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands after a signing ceremony in Beijing, Oct. 20, 2016.

Since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visited Beijing in October after just three months in office, officials from the two countries have begun discussing investment and development aid as well. As a favor to China, Duterte will most likely not make the maritime sovereignty part of discussions this year on a code of conduct framework, analysts expect.

China may see a chance now to shine in Asia, compared with the United States under President Donald Trump, experts say. The United States sent its USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier to the disputed sea region Saturday for what Washington called routine operations, about a month after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson advocated blocking China from islets that it has landfilled.

"Each country is, in a way, adjusting to the new situation," said Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines.

"They've seen the upsets in the past year, especially with the U.S. They've been touting this framework for a year or so now, so to actually sign something and produce a slightly different piece of paper now, all parties could say it's indicative of progress because something was actually agreed upon and signed," he said.

Code of conduct

The code of conduct idea began in 2002 when Beijing and the Southeast Asian bloc signed a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. The declaration formed a basis for negotiations on a formal code of conduct.

But as ASEAN worked toward a code in 2011, China slowly dropped out, according to a study by the Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. China had started around then to let its vessels enter waters inside the exclusive economic zones of other countries. It has reclaimed an estimated 1,300 hectares (3,200 acres) of land in the sea's disputed Spratly Island chain and militarized some of the Paracel Islands, which Vietnam also calls its own.

South China Sea Territorial Claims

South China Sea Territorial Claims

China cites historical usage records as a basis for its claims. China and the Southeast Asian countries prize the sea for its fisheries, possible undersea fossil fuels and marine shipping lanes. Washington does not have a claim but insists on freedom of navigation.

"Where the worry comes in is we have the Chinese navy fleet running around the South China Sea and running into the U.S. Seventh Fleet, and accidents, when they happen, that could potentially lead to some escalation of risk in and around the region," said Song Seng Wun, an economist with CIMB Private Bank in Singapore.

Some analysts still worry that this year's framework talks will fall short as just a list of topics for future talks, with a full code taking years more to draft. The Southeast Asian countries are negotiating one on one with China at the same time to see what happens, Batongbacal said.

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