Code for South China Sea a Long Way Off

A legally binding agreement between Asean members and China designed to avoid conflict over disputed waters in the South China Sea will not be adopted during this month’s Asean summit, a Cambodian foreign affairs official said yesterday.

Speaking after a meeting in Phnom Penh between senior foreign affairs officials from Asean member states and China, Secretary of State Soeung Rathchavy said it was unrealistic to think that a Code of Conduct (COC) for waters believed to be rich in oil and gas would be approved during the summit.

“No,” Ms. Rathchavy said when asked if the COC would be approved by the end of the Asean Summit, which will be held from November 15 to 20. “Right now, the COC has not been drafted yet. It is still in discussion. The COC is very complicated.”

Still, Ms. Rathchavy said all sides were committed to promoting peace in the area and to upholding the Declaration of Conduct (DOC) —a set of guidelines for peace that was signed in 2002 but is not legally binding.

“We had a candid and frank discussion. The participants and moderator had a very frank exchange of views on the implementation of the DOC,” she said of the foreign affairs meeting yesterday.

Expectations for the COC to be adopted during Cambodia’s Asean chairmanship this year were positive at the beginning of the year. Because of Cambodia’s close relationship with China, as well as its role in pushing forward the DOC the last time Cambodia was Asean chair in 2002, analysts believed that a COC could be adopted. However, the Asean Foreign Ministers Meeting in July in Phnom Penh ended in acrimony and blame, with several governments claiming that Cambodia was doing China’s bidding in blocking movement forward on the COC.

At the meeting in July, the Asean bloc failed to release a closing statement for the first time in its 45-year history due to a disagreement between the Philippines, which insisted on the inclusion of a maritime clash between Beijing and Manila over the Scarborough Shoal, and Cambodia, which refused, arguing instead that matters regarding the sea should be resolved bilaterally between Beijing and individual countries.

Cambodia has denied it is being unduly influenced by China on the COC issue.

Officials from Asean and China met in Pattaya, Thailand, earlier this week to begin talks on the COC during the Asean-China Senior Official Ministers Meeting. However, participants left the meeting unhopeful that the COC would be agreed upon this year, despite a general consensus within Asean to do so.

Yesterday, Nopadol Gunavibool, deputy permanent secretary of Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs—which is the coordinator between Asean-China relations—also dampened expectations for the COC during this month’s summit in Phnom Penh.

“A lot of people have high expectations that we would adopt the COC within a particular time frame. But I think the whole thing is a process of building trust and confidence,” said Mr. Nopadol. “I don’t think we should try to pin down whether we need to achieve the COC at a certain time.”

He also said that more concentrated discussion during this month’s summit would be key to avoiding a repeat of the diplomatic breakdown at the July meeting in Phnom Penh.

“The last time, the experience we had is a lesson learned for us and this time we will avoid that kind of experience. Through more consultation, through more time, we could have avoided that kind of lack of consensus,” Mr. Nopadol said.

Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said at the opening of yesterday’s meeting that all parties would continue to work together on the COC.

“I am of the view that Asean and China should continue to work together closely…to engage in discussions on a step-by-step basis leading to the eventual adoption of the COC,” Mr. Namhong said in prepared remarks prior to the meeting.

An adoption of the COC, or even a strict implementation of the DOC, requires “political willingness,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an associate professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

“While Asean claimants may want to bring China to the negotiating table and win over it, China may just want a [status] quo, or basically, to freeze the problem for the time being,” Mr. Chachavalpongpun said. “Economically speaking, China still needs Asean and vice versa.”

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