Accessibility links

Breaking News

ASEAN aims to conclude South China Sea code of conduct by 2026

FILE - A Chinese coast guard ship, left, and a Chinese militia vessel, right, blocks a coast guard ship from the Philippines as it heads toward Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, Oct. 4, 2023. The ASEAN hopes to reduce risk of conflict in the area with a code of conduct.
FILE - A Chinese coast guard ship, left, and a Chinese militia vessel, right, blocks a coast guard ship from the Philippines as it heads toward Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, Oct. 4, 2023. The ASEAN hopes to reduce risk of conflict in the area with a code of conduct.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations will speed up negotiations with China on a code of conduct to mitigate the risk of conflicts in the hotly contested South China Sea, a senior official from the Southeast Asian bloc said. The bloc hopes to conclude talks by 2026.

But whether the code of conduct will be legally binding is still under discussion.

"We continue to call on all the direct parties concerned to exercise restraint," Kao Kim Hourn, secretary-general of the association, also known as ASEAN, told reporters during a roundtable on Wednesday. "We cannot deny the fact that the situation continues to escalate."

Kao is in Washington this week for his first working visit to promote the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the regional bloc and the United States.

Philippines seeks dialogue with China

During a seminar at the Stimson Center on Wednesday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell urged ASEAN to "send an unmistakable message about concerns with respect to provocations in what are clearly Philippine waters."

His remarks came amid increasing tensions between China and the Philippines due to recent collisions near the waters around Second Thomas Shoal, known as Rén'ài Jiao in China.

It is an offshore maritime feature in the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, less than 370 kilometers from the Philippine Island of Palawan, and about 1111 kilometers from China’s Hainan Island, according to CSIS.

Campbell added that Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. "does not seek a crisis" but desires a dialogue with Beijing. "We're looking for China to cease provocative activities," Campbell said.

According to an international tribunal's legally binding decision issued in July 2016, Second Thomas Shoal is located within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, and China has no lawful maritime claims to the waters around this low-tide feature.

Beijing has rejected the ruling, claiming "indisputable sovereignty" over most of the South China Sea.

"All ASEAN member states exercise their own foreign policy," Kao said, when asked if the regional bloc will issue a strong statement to support the Philippines. "In this case, it's actually up to each member state" to decide.

Analysts still skeptical

Some analysts say that since 2017 they have repeatedly heard that a code of conduct is just around the corner, but it has never come from the claimants that really have disagreements with China.

Another sticking point is that while ASEAN has long insisted a code of conduct should be legally binding, China has never accepted this key position.

"ASEAN remains quite divided in that the non-claimants are not really invested in solving or even managing this issue and won't risk China's displeasure on behalf of their fellow members. This effectively leaves the claimants — the Philippines and Vietnam, in particular — often standing alone to hold the line in negotiations with China," said Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Others, including Luigi Joble, who teaches at Manila-based De La Salle University, said such a challenge — the lack of unity amid member countries' diverse positions — "has been, unfortunately, chronic to ASEAN's engagements with China on the issue, including the decades-long Code of Conduct on the South China Sea negotiations."

Joble added that roadblocks to concluding the code of conduct have been encountered throughout its negotiations. This has prompted certain claimant states to exert control over disputed maritime features, despite violating established international law, hoping such developments will influence the outcome of the code of conduct negotiations.

Bloc divided about Myanmar conflict

The Southeast Asian bloc remains divided over the conflict in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, which began more than three years ago when the junta overthrew the democratically elected government.

Authoritarian ASEAN members such as Laos and Cambodia continue to support the junta to some extent.

Other members, including Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore, have had some level of interaction with the Myanmar resistance.

"I believe that we cannot expect a quick fix or solution" to end the crisis in Burma, said Kao, who was born in Cambodia. "The priority should be to eliminate violence on the ground inside the country and to promote inclusive dialogue among different stakeholders so there is a political path moving forward," he added.

Kao visited Myanmar last month. He said the country may send a nonpolitical representative to attend ASEAN foreign ministerial meetings in July in Laos' capital, Vientiane. ASEAN will hold its summit in October.

"On political issues, we shouldn't be expecting much of ASEAN, because member countries cannot reach a consensus that meets the needs of their political relations with countries outside ASEAN. So, they handle those individually on a bilateral basis," said Priscilla Clapp, a senior adviser at the United States Institute of Peace.

Shortly after the military coup, the leaders of nine ASEAN member states and Myanmar junta chief General Min Aung Hlaing agreed to an immediate end to violence in the country; dialogue among all parties; the appointment of a special envoy; humanitarian assistance by ASEAN; and the special envoy's visit to Myanmar to meet with all parties.

"The five-point consensus, I think, is basically dead," Clapp told VOA, citing conditions that the resistance has rejected as unreasonable, including the impracticality of holding new elections under the current circumstances in the country and accepting a return to the 2008 military constitution.

She added that ASEAN's special envoy cannot make any progress in ending the conflict without engaging Myanmar's National Unity Government — which views itself as a shadow government — as well as other major parties to the conflict.