“Chinese Premier Li Calls for South China Sea Code of Conduct by 2021” by Ian Storey

2018/99, 15 November 2018

On 13 November 2018, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang delivered the 44th Singapore Lecture entitled “Pursuing Open and Integrated Development for Shared Prosperity”. During his speech, Li expressed the hope that China and ASEAN could conclude negotiations on a Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea within three years. Li also said that a CoC would contribute to peace and stability in the South China Sea and facilitate trade relations between ASEAN and China.

Li is the most senior Chinese official to suggest a time frame for the negotiations. In late October, during a visit to Manila, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had said he hoped the CoC talks could be wrapped up during the Philippines’ term as country coordinator for ASEAN-China dialogue relations which runs from mid-2018 to mid-2021.

Previously, Chinese officials had been reluctant to speculate on a date for the completion of CoC talks. For instance, in August 2018, following agreement between the foreign ministers of China and ASEAN on a single draft negotiating text (SDNT) on the CoC, Yi Xianliang, Director-General of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs, said that it was “unrealistic” to set a timetable for the negotiations due to the complexity of the issues under discussion.

Wang and Li’s comments will come as a disappointment to those in Southeast Asia and elsewhere who had hoped that the CoC could be finalized in 2019. On the one hand, cynics will argue that this is further proof that Beijing is drawing out the talks for as long as possible so that it can consolidate its position in the South China Sea—and hence its bargaining position in the negotiations—by completing construction of military facilities on its seven manmade islands in the Spratlys.

On the other hand, as Yi Xianlang pointed out, there are many complex issues to resolve before final agreement can be reached. While the two sides agree on much that is in the SDNT, including the importance of freedom of navigation and resolving the dispute in accordance with international law, there are also many contentious issues to be worked out. These include the geographical scope of the agreement, whether it should be legally binding or voluntary, what kinds of activities should be prohibited and how disputes arising from the code should be addressed. These issues will not be resolved quickly or easily. As such, three years sounds about right.

Dr Ian Storey is Senior Fellow with ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

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