The fate of negotiations between China and Southeast Asian nations to reach an agreement governing the disputed South China Sea depends on whether Beijing insists on sticking to its so-called nine-dash line claim rejected by an international tribunal in The Hague, experts said.
China uses the U-shaped line — which compromises nine dashes — to illustrate its claims over vast areas of the contested waters.
In 2016, the tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines, which had challenged some of Beijing’s territorial claims.
China and of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed last week on a series of guidelines to conclude within three years a nonaggression pact aimed at preventing conflicts in the contested territory.
The guidelines were adopted during the meeting between ASEAN foreign ministers and the Chinese Communist Party's foreign affairs commission director, Wang Yi, in Jakarta on July 13. Details of the guidelines were not revealed.
At the meeting last Thursday, Wang said China “supports all parties in accelerating the formation of the guidelines, with the hope that the guidelines will continue playing a constructive role.”
“China actively participates in and firmly supports a regional cooperation framework with ASEAN at the core” and “adheres to a concept of inclusivity, rejects interference and continues development,” said China’s top diplomat.
ASEAN countries and China have been trying unsuccessfully for years to formulate a legally binding Code of Conduct (COC) to govern the territory contested by China, Taiwan and four ASEAN countries — the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Disagreements among the parties on a series of issues, including fishing activities and military actions, blocked the progress of negotiations for an agreement.
In 2002, China and the 10-nation ASEAN bloc, which includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam, signed an informal agreement — the Declaration of Conduct of Parties (DOC). The declaration calls for both sides to commit to international law and freedom of navigation.
The dispute over the nine-dash line has been in the news this month because Vietnam banned the release of the Warner Bros. film “Barbie.” A scene in the movie appears to depict the nine-dash line. Film executives called it a “whimsical, child-like” scribble that did not represent the nine-dash line.
Analysts said last week’s agreement could provide a new momentum in diplomatic efforts between China and ASEAN but cautioned the two sides face tough issues to work through before reaching a binding agreement.
“An agreement on guidelines to accelerate negotiations suggests that China wants to keep the diplomatic track with ASEAN alive, but as long as Beijing continues to insist on the nine-dash line and undertaking coercive actions against other claimants, its commitment to international law and regional peace and stability on this issue will be questioned,” said Prashanth Parameswaran, founder of the weekly ASEAN Wonk newsletter and fellow at the Wilson Center's Asia Program.
“Words at diplomatic meetings cannot be divorced from actions on the water,” added Parameswaran.
Aristyo Rizka Darmawan, a lecturer in international law at the University of Indonesia and co-director of the Center for Sustainable Ocean Policy, said a binding COC will not solve the territorial dispute.
“Unfortunately, disagreements over interpretation of the COC mean that the agreement will not be an effective conflict prevention mechanism but could instead generate new tensions between the claimant states,” said Darmawan, who focuses on the law of the sea and maritime security in Southeast Asia.
Hikmahanto Juwana, an international law professor at the University of Indonesia, said ASEAN and China can agree on a Code of Conduct by 2026, as long as ties between China and the United States do not worsen.
At a press conference in Jakarta following the foreign ministers’ meeting and related meetings, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called out China for “increasing assertiveness” in the South and East China Seas and the Taiwan Strait.
“We remain committed to upholding freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea,” Blinken said last Friday.
“We support ASEAN negotiation of a code of conduct consistent with international law,” the top U.S. diplomat said.
Christy Lee of the VOA Korean Service contributed to this report.