“Will ASEAN and China Move Beyond the COC Framework?” by Jason Salim

2017/48, 8 August 2017

There was no shortage of good news for Asean coming out of the 50th Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting that took place over the weekend in Manila, the Philippines, especially with regards to its relations with China. Not only did the Joint Communique include strong and firm language on land reclamation and militarisation activities in the South China Sea, but Asean and China also formally endorsed the framework for the Code of Conduct (COC) of the South China Sea. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi even took the opportunity to propose three steps to move the COC consultations forward. The most encouraging point among the three steps is Foreign Minister Wang’s pronouncement that the “leaders of China and ASEAN member states will officially announce the start of the next step to negotiate on the text of the COC at the China-ASEAN Leaders’ Summit in November” this year.

Given that it has taken 15 years since the signing of the Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea in 2002 to reach this point, there is no doubt that these are positive developments. Progress on this front underline China’s willingness in recognising the importance of the COC as a mechanism for confidence building and managing tensions in the South China Sea. At the same time, Foreign Minister Wang’s caveats that the negotiations would only commence in November provided that “there is no major outside interference and the South China Sea situation is generally stable” cast a dark shadow on China’s sincerity in making meaningful progress on this divisive issue.

What “major outside interference” and “generally stable” might mean is pretty vague at this stage. Does this mean that Asean would be penalised and the security of the region imperilled if freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea by US, Australian and British naval assets continues to take place? Is it fair to punish ASEAN for actions by the US, Australia and the UK that are beyond its control? Foreign Minister Wang also seemed to dismiss the possibility that Chinese actions could contribute to instability in the South China Sea.

Moving forward, Asean should expect future negotiations to be tough. On the other hand, a pessimistic reading of the Chinese caveats suggests that China is intentionally setting up trip wires to derail the negotiations. To be fair, the onus is on ASEAN and China to ensure that the goodwill that prevailed in Manila in the past week does not go to waste.

Asean should seize on the momentum following the AMM to coax China to recognise the collective concerns of all ten member states in the interest of common regional security. Should negotiations for the COC begin on time in November, it would send a message to Asean and the world that China is willing to play a constructive role in the regional security architecture.
Mr Jason Salim is Research Officer at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute.

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