Free and Open Indo-Pacific/FOIPNortheast AsiaSoutheast Asia

PRC still dragging its feet on South China Sea code of conduct

FORUM Staff

A decadeslong effort to craft a South China Sea code of conduct (COC) between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) took an incremental step forward in July 2023. Observers, however, say the PRC remains intractable.

The latest agreement sets guidelines to accelerate negotiations on a COC, ASEAN foreign ministers said, but does not appear to address the content of any deal that would deescalate tensions or guide conflict resolution in the resource-rich region. A COC, which ASEAN has pursued since the 1990s, would create “rules of the road” for settling territorial disputes in the South China Sea, a main artery for global trade and home to lucrative fisheries and vast oil reserves.

Analysts warn the PRC is deliberately stalling as it seeks to consolidate gains in the region before consenting to a framework for regional stability. “China has dragged its feet on an agreement that would limit its freedom of action” and used its growing capabilities to enforce sweeping claims, wrote Prashanth Parameswaran, a global fellow with the United States-based Wilson Center’s Asia Program.

At issue is the PRC’s continual harassment of its Southeast Asian neighbors in the contested waterway. The PRC claims almost all of the sea, although an international tribunal ruled in 2016 that assertion has no legal basis. Beijing, ignoring the ruling, routinely intercepts fishing boats and attempts to block military activities and exploration with its near-daily “patrols” in disputed areas. Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping maritime claims with the PRC.

PRC aggression against rival claimants in the South China Sea has continued since the 1980s. In the past year alone, the Philippines revealed that a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) vessel directed a military-grade laser toward a Philippine Coast Guard ship, temporarily blinding crew members; the PLA fired water cannons at Philippine ships delivering supplies for Soldiers on Second Thomas Shoal; and Vietnamese fishermen reported injuries after a PLA water cannon attack.

The PRC has built on its expansive claims with artificial maritime features, creating at least 3,200 acres of new land since 2013, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. Despite Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping’s promise not to militarize the outposts, satellite images show missiles systems placed in the contested Spratly and Paracel islands, Radio Free Asia reported in early 2023.

The U.S. regularly conducts routine freedom of navigation operations in international waters of the South China Sea, demonstrating the right to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows. The U.S., Allies and Partners assure economic prosperity via safe and secure sea passageways.

Meanwhile, PRC demands have slowed COC talks. Beijing has insisted that the agreement be nonbinding, which could be insufficient to ensure compliance, Indonesian news website Medcom.id reported.

PRC negotiators have also called for a measure that allows any COC signatory to veto naval exercises with nonsignatories, The Diplomat magazine reported. However, many ASEAN members reject the provision given their reliance on partners such as the U.S. to reinforce a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.

Key moments in ASEAN’s push to establish a COC:

1992: ASEAN issues its Declaration on the South China Sea, the first document addressing conduct in the waterway.

1996: ASEAN suggests a South China Sea COC to the PRC.
March 2002: COC negotiations begin.

November 2002: ASEAN and the PRC agree on a Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which was to preclude a formal code. The parties pledged to settle differences peacefully and exercise self-restraint.

January 2013: The Philippines files a case against the PRC under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Manila asks an international tribunal to determine whether Beijing violated Philippine territorial rights in the South China Sea.

September 2013: Formal ASEAN-PRC consultations recommence on a COC.
2015: CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping says he does not intend to militarize artificial maritime features in the disputed waters.

July 2016: An international tribunal invalidates the PRC’s claims to 90% of the South China Sea.
November 2016: Satellite images show People’s Liberation Army missile systems and anti-aircraft weapons on the artificial features. By 2023, such images would show that the PRC had militarized artificial features in the disputed Paracel and Spratly archipelagos.

2017: ASEAN and the PRC announce a “draft framework COC.”

2018: ASEAN and the PRC release a “Single Draft Negotiating Text.” Then-PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi vows the COC will be finalized within three years.

2021: With COC talks stagnant during the COVID-19 pandemic, the PRC passes a law allowing the use of force against perceived transgressors of Beijing’s claimed maritime sovereignty.

2023: ASEAN and the PRC agree on new guidelines to accelerate negotiations. They set a goal of completing the COC within three years, Indonesia’s Antara News reported.

A Chinese Communist Party Coast Guard ship fires a water cannon at a Philippines government vessel in the South China Sea. The Filipino crew members were delivering food, water, fuel and other supplies to troops stationed on the Philippines’ Second Thomas Shoal.

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