Trade and industry, International relations, South China Sea | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

8 June 2022

The United States’ recent summit with ASEAN could provide a boost to Code of Conduct negotiations with China in the South China Sea, Aristyo Rizka Darmawan writes.

In May, United States President Joe Biden hosted the first in-person US-ASEAN leaders’ summit at the White House since the pandemic started. The summit occurred during an important time, with the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy intensifying with Southeast Asia at its forefront.

The US-ASEAN joint vision statement reiterated the commitment of the partnership in addressing issues such as the COVID-19 recovery, economic connectivity, technological innovation, and climate change. Promoting maritime security and cooperation was also among its top priorities, specifically the importance of finalising and implementing the South China Sea Code of Conduct (CoC).

The evolution of the CoC dates back to 1992, when ASEAN issued its first statement on territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Endorsing the concept of a CoC in 1996, they then signed a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) in 2002, with draft guidelines being adopted in 2011.

While the DoC has already played a significant role in stabilising the area, a CoC would be an upgraded version that would take yet another step towards regional peace and stability.

On many occasions, both ASEAN and China officials have stated that it is in their national interest to finalise a CoC as soon as possible.

ASEAN claimants want a CoC to ensure peace and security in the disputed area and to uphold international law, and China wants to make sure that the dispute remains exclusively between ASEAN claimants and China, minimising the involvement of extra-regional powers in the disputed area.

For these reasons, both parties have reiterated their commitment to a CoC, but there are still contentious issues that prevent both parties from concluding it.

More on this: Towards a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea

Some of the questions that arose during negotiations include whether the CoC is legally binding, its scope, and the role of extra-regional powers in enforcing it.

It was in this context that the US-ASEAN Summit took place.

On the second day of the summit, United States Vice President Kamala Harris hosted a working lunch on maritime security. The United States has committed to ensure maritime security in the region by intensifying cooperation with ASEAN coast guards to tackle issues such as illegal fishing, transnational organised crime, and importantly, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

The summit served to reiterate the growing maritime security cooperation in the region.

The first ASEAN-US Maritime Exercise was conducted in 2019, and other bilateral agreements are proliferating across Southeast Asia. Maritime security cooperation between the United States and ASEAN navies and law enforcement agencies is only increasing.

In addition to the United States’ growing interest, the European Union’s release of an Indo-Pacific strategy has underscored its commitment to a naval presence in Southeast Asia. Again with specific emphasis on the South China Sea dispute, it espouses the need to protect freedom of navigation in the region.

More on this: ASEAN’s dilemma in the South China Sea

Ultimately, the summit and these other developments show that extra-regional powers continue to be involved in the South China Sea, and China’s alarm bells are sure to be ringing as a result.

Even despite China and ASEAN’s differences on a potential CoC, the warming US-ASEAN relationship and their increased maritime security cooperation is likely put pressure on China to negotiate a CoC with renewed urgency.

It is worth noting though that China has also ramped up its naval presence and bases across the region.

For example, the recent Solomon Islands-China security pact raised concerns for the United States and its allies.

Amidst this turbulence, committing to a CoC in the South China Sea would mark a significant step forward for peace and security in the region.

With the situation quickly evolving, the US-ASEAN summit should provide a boost in momentum on this ahead of ASEAN and China resuming their in-person CoC negotiations.

It sends a clear message to China that ASEAN and the United States have a strong commitment and shared interest in maintaining a rules-based order in the region.

Hopefully, that commitment can trigger a sense of urgency for China to finalise a CoC, giving ASEAN claimants more leverage. If the recent summit can provide that boost, negotiators from the ASEAN countries can enter their talks with China more confident that they can finalise a CoC that protects international law and sovereignty in the region.

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