Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) pose for a group photo during the opening ceremony of the ASEAN leaders summit in Bangkok, Thailand, June 23, 2019.
Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) pose for a group photo during the opening ceremony of the ASEAN leaders summit in Bangkok, Thailand, June 23, 2019.

TAIPEI - China and a group of Southeast Asian countries, long at odds over control of the sea between them, aim to finish phase one of a maritime code of conduct within months after 17 years of trying to resolve Asia’s widest-reaching sovereignty dispute.

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China have probably talked enough to eliminate any sticky points in the code – issues touching on who owns which islands, for example – to approach a first reading by their major annual meeting in November, scholars in Asia say.

A code would help guide ships away from mishaps and resolve any accidents in the vast, crowded South China Sea without giving any government express priority. A June 9 collision between Philippine and Chinese vessels, backed by growing regional pressure on China, gave new impetus to signing a code.

“If you’re looking at the code of conduct since 2002, that’s about 17 years, so that would be a very big milestone if that would pass,” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.

“There should be momentum when the leaders meet again in November,” he said. “That will probably be on the agenda again now that ASEAN leaders have put that at the top of their agenda.”

Stated intent

At an ASEAN summit in Bangkok on Sunday, the bloc’s chairman issued a statement pointing to stronger “cooperation” and possible completion of the code’s first take this year.

“We warmly welcomed the continued improving cooperation between ASEAN and China and were encouraged by the progress of the substantive negotiations towards the early conclusion of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea within a mutually-agreed timeline,” the statement says. 

“We welcomed efforts to complete the first reading of the single draft negotiating text by this year,” it says.

The premier in China, which was once feared to be opposing the code, had estimated last year completion of a code by 2021, but in March Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said via state media the date should be moved up.

“Earlier the premier mentioned three years and now the foreign minister, Wang Yi, mentioned it can be done in faster than three years, which is true, I think,” said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, fellow with the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Boat collision

The June 9 collision between boats from China and the Philippines left 22 Filipino sailors in the water and sparked a joint investigation about what went wrong.

A navy spokesman said China might have rammed the Filipino boat intentionally. Vietnam and China rammed each other’s boats in 2014 over a Chinese oil rig. A spokesperson for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a coordinator for ASEAN’s dialogue with China, said Monday the code of conduct process had been moving too slowly.

Earlier this year, hundreds of Chinese boats set off further alarm by passing near Pag Asa, a  disputed South China Sea islet controlled by the Philippines.

ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam claim all or parts of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea. China and Taiwan claim nearly all of it. Rival claimants value the waterway for its fisheries, shipping lanes and fossil fuel reserves. 

China has alarmed the others since 2010 by building artificial islands for military installations. 

“It’s been the Philippines (and) China that have had the irritants since last year - - a lot of Chinese  boats around Pag Asa Island followed by this alleged deliberate boat ramming, said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.

China on board

China had said before 2016 it was in no hurry to sign a code and accused other claimants of violating a declaration that opened the negotiation process. But after losing a 2016 world arbitral court ruling over the legal basis to its South China Sea claims and facing increased pressure from the United States since 2017, it has worked more closely with Southeast Asia.

Washington stepped up naval patrols of the sea in 2017 to monitor Chinese activity and said this month it would work more closely with other countries in Asia on defense.

China should “take advantage” of U.S. preoccupation with other matters now and draw on ASEAN’s “goodwill,” Araral said. China needs stronger relations in Southeast Asia, he added. 

The ultimate code will probably sidestep controversial issues, Thayer said. It would leave vague, for example, the scope of the sea in question, and discourage involvement of states outside Asia, he said.

It might instead outline dispute resolution steps, Thayer said. Crew members from any ships in a mishap or near mishap might be directed by the code how to compare coordinates, videos and logs, he said. They might also be able to use hotlines to report findings.