Free and Open Indo-Pacific/FOIPSoutheast Asia

ASEAN demonstrates solidarity as PRC drags feet on South China Sea code of conduct


Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members are reinforcing partnerships that uphold stability in the South China Sea. Recent diplomatic efforts come as an increasingly aggressive People’s Republic of China (PRC) claims decadeslong talks on a code of conduct (COC) for the crucial waterway are “going smoothly.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. met in Manila in early January 2023 to discuss energy and defense cooperation, including South China Sea developments and strengthening ties among Southeast Asian countries.

Beijing claims almost all of the waterway — home to lucrative fisheries and vast oil reserves and a conduit for more than $3 trillion in annual trade — despite a 2016 international tribunal ruling that the PRC’s claim has no legal basis. The PRC has intensified its hostile tactics in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in recent months, including firing water cannons at Philippine vessels, ramming ships and installing barriers to prevent fishing.

Chinese coast guard vessels fire water cannons at Philippine boats near Scarborough Shoal, which is within Manila’s exclusive economic zone, in December 2023.

Widodo again broached maritime tensions during January trade and investment talks in Hanoi. He and Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong “reaffirmed the importance of peace, stability, safety, security, and freedom of navigation and overflight” in the South China Sea, according to Benar News.

ASEAN leaders also issued a statement in late 2023 indicating concern over “developments in the South China Sea that may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.”

They “expressed ‘unity’ as well as ‘solidarity’ with the Philippines in what ASEAN foreign ministers described as ‘our maritime sphere,’ thus subtly rejecting any suggestion that China or any major power should dominate the South China Sea basin,” the Asia Times newspaper reported.

ASEAN first approached Beijing in 1996 about a South China Sea COC for settling territorial disputes. Formal negotiations began in 2002, but analysts say the PRC has dragged its feet on an agreement that could limit its attempts to impose vast maritime claims. As recently as January 11, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson claimed that “consultations are going smoothly” and that the PRC hopes for an “early adoption of the COC.”

The PRC ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1996, which allows parties to claim EEZs stretching 200 nautical miles from the coastlines of naturally formed, habitable territory.

However, the PRC’s claims to the South China Sea extend as far as 800 nautical miles from the Chinese mainland, defying UNCLOS and the international tribunal ruling that upheld its provisions. The maritime territory over which Beijing attempts to exert sovereignty extends into the EEZs of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

In a nonbinding 2002 agreement between ASEAN and the PRC — the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea — leaders committed to using “recognized principles of international law” to govern state-to-state relations and resolving territorial disputes “by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force.”

More than 20 years later, the South China Sea “exists under the persistent threat and occasional use of force,” Raymond Powell, director of the maritime transparency project SeaLight at California’s Stanford University, wrote for The Diplomat magazine. “It is a place where many disputes are not resolved peacefully, but rather by the application and threat of violence by China.”

He cited the Chinese coast guard’s attempts to assert jurisdiction over Indonesian, Malaysian and Vietnamese gas fields in addition to blockades and other aggressive actions in Philippine waters.

The PRC could be using prolonged COC talks as political cover while it attempts to gain control over the vast area it claims, Powell warned.

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