PRC continues to delay code of conduct in South China Sea, despite promises
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) continues to block the adoption of a code of conduct in the South China Sea, despite decades of promises to accelerate the process.
Moreover, analysts contend that the PRC’s ongoing stall tactics are part of an overarching strategy to seize control of the disputed waterway before a code to reduce the risk of conflict in the South China Sea can be implemented.
In the PRC’s latest pledge in mid-July 2022, Wang Yi, PRC state councilor and foreign affairs minister, promised to hasten negotiations to develop a code during a two-day stop in Malaysia toward the end of a five-nation tour of Southeast Asia from July 3 to 14.
“Against this backdrop of glacial progress, it is foolish to view Wang’s comments as anything other than an attempt to play for time while China’s growing naval power creates facts on the ground in disputed parts of the South China Sea,” Sebastian Strangio, Southeast Asia editor at online news magazine The Diplomat, wrote in a July 2022 article. Wang also visited Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand on the trip.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) started working on such a code in the 1990s. Since then, the PRC has reclaimed more than 1,200 hectares of land, about 19 times as much as reclaimed by all other claimants combined. Four ASEAN member states — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam — plus Taiwan have territorial claims to portions of the South China Sea.
Although Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping promised not to militarize the artificial islands in October 2015, the CCP has fortified the outposts with airfields, ports, radars and other military facilities and continues such construction in 2022, according to satellite imagery and analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
The PRC claims most of the region and its estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to CSIS, although the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) ruled in favor of the Philippines in July 2016, determining that the PRC’s designated “nine-dash line” has no legal basis.
Indonesia does not have a territorial claim in the South China Sea, but a section of its exclusive economic zone that includes natural gas fields falls within the PRC’s “nine-dash line.” Chinese ships have routinely entered the area Indonesia calls the North Natuna Sea, causing tensions between the countries.
To date, ASEAN has only gotten the PRC to agree in 2002 to sign a Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which has been powerless in stopping the PRC from proclaiming ownership of thousands of hectares and converting rocks into artificial islands.
The PRC began delaying talks of a formal code in 2013, about the time it began building fake islands. In response, the Philippines filed the arbitration case with The Hague. After The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in 2016, the PRC agreed to adopt a framework for a code with ASEAN. Since then, however, the PRC has delayed production of the code’s final wording.
As pressure has increased in recent years to implement a code, the PRC has only intensified its stall tactics.
“Each day as the negotiations get delayed, China has been strengthening its position, sending hundreds of fishing and militia vessels to gain control of waters, building a formidable naval and air power and further fortifying its occupied areas,” journalist Manuel Mogato asserted on the Philippines One News website in March 2021.
“When the time comes, and China finally agrees to sign it, the COC [code of conduct] may be no longer relevant as Beijing has full control of the strategic waterway.”
Recent PRC activities continue to support such assertions. In June 2022, officials reported that 100 Chinese ships were seen inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), swarming an area known as the Julian Filipe Reef.
“The issue of the territorial dispute is not just an abstract question of sovereignty, of access to resources,” Benjamin Miguel Alvero, a spokesman for the West Philippine Sea Coalition, told BenarNews in mid-July 2022. The group, named after the Philippine name for the South China Sea, led a protest on the sixth anniversary of the UNCLOS ruling. (Pictured: Philippine activists protest on July 12, 2022, the anniversary of an international tribune ruling that invalidated the People’s Republic of China’s claims to the South China Sea, which the Philippines calls the West Philippine Sea. Several placards read: “WEST PH SEA IS OURS”)
“The militarization of the West Philippine Sea has concrete repercussions for thousands of ordinary Filipinos, of fisherfolk communities that are unable to work and pursue their livelihood because of the threat of harassment, especially from Chinese military forces,” Alvero said.
The Philippines, he said, must confront what he called the “expansionist ambitions of a rising China.”
“We challenge the newly elected administration of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to prove its commitment to serving the Filipino people [by] pursuing a principled foreign policy, unlike the last six years under the Duterte government,” he said.
In addition, the PRC has dangled the allure of joint oil exploration projects as part of its stall tactics, especially in its negotiations with the Philippines. For example, in April 2018, then-Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and the CCP’s Xi agreed to joint exploration projects in the South China Sea, and the Philippine government allowed drilling to begin off the Philippines’ coast after lifting a 6-year-old moratorium. However, the government suspended drilling in April 2022 for undisclosed reasons.
Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said the suspension indicated that “China is essentially trying to make the Philippines agree to joint exploration and development only on China’s terms,” Agence France-Presse reported.
At the same time, the PRC has undermined other claimants’ attempts to conduct oil exploration independently. For example, state-run oil companies such as the China National Offshore Oil Corp. have not only participated in the large-scale reclamation, construction or militarization of disputed outposts in the South China Sea but also blocked access of Southeast Asian claimants to offshore resources in the South China Sea, according to the U.S. State Department.
IMAGE CREDIT: REUTERS