ASEAN Should Reject a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea
Image Credit: flickr/Secretary of Defense

ASEAN Should Reject a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea


Be afraid, ASEAN countries. Of a South China Sea code of conduct, I mean. The only code of conduct worth having would be one by which China renounces its nine-dashed line of the region and the associated territorial claims; matches its words with deeds by evacuating sites it has poached from other countries' exclusive economic zones; stops asserting the right to proscribe certain foreign naval activities within the nine-dashed line; and agrees that the purpose of any code of conduct is to lock in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as the regional status quo.

Anyone want to place odds on Beijing's doing any one of these things? Me neither. All of them? Fuggedaboutit. If ASEAN consents to a code of conduct anyway, it will have ratified the current state of affairs, including China's seizures of Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef, deep within the Philippine EEZ. Southeast Asian countries will have consented to a region wide protection racket, in hopes that letting China keep its past gains will purchase its forbearance and goodwill in the future.

Good luck with that one. It's rather as though a less kind, gentle Naval Diplomat pointed a gun at you and demanded money to protect you from … me! Such bargains with the Family seldom work out well in gangster films. Life imitates art in this case. The international relations counterpart is what scholars call bandwagoning. Weaker states prefer to band together to offset strong, domineering powers prone to trampling their interests and security. But if the weak are unable to balance a would-be hegemon, they may align themselves with it. They agree to the hegemon's demands in hopes of buying peace while retaining as much of their sovereignty and preserving as many of their interests as they can.

Trouble is, such arrangements are perishable. They only last until the Family decides it needs more. Then the leg-breakers up their demands. Needless to say, the price of protection has a way of going up over time.

Philippine foreign minister Albert del Rosario understands the dynamics at work in the South China Sea. "We think that China is trying to stay ahead of the CoC," del Rosario told Reuters this week. The code of conduct will look forward in an effort to defuse future controversies, not back to reverse past offenses. Beijing, accordingly, is pushing "an assertion agenda." It will grab what it can, then agree to a code that guarantees it can keep what it just grabbed. That becomes the new normal.

There's ample precedent for using laws or international covenants to cement your gains. British scholar Ken Booth recalls that seafaring states scrambled for maritime territory during the 1970s and early 1980s, at the same time they were negotiating UNCLOS. And one doubts that was the first time states gamed international law in such fashion.

So Manila is right to cry foul about Beijing's agenda. Don Xi Jinping and his Family are a particularly demanding, unforgiving lot. If they won't let the explicit text of a treaty — a treaty to which China has consented — restrain their ambitions, why expect a code of conduct to? Beware of bandwagoning, Southeast Asians, unless you're prepared to pay up — again and again.

September 24, 2013 at 04:08

Philippines has modernize their navy and beef up the coast protection (like Vietnam does). China is can sized but not able to controll the south sea if Philippines and Vietnam (and other) work together. 

Soon or later it will come to clashes (China will teach "lessons"…). This is the way (culture) how China deal with the small countries. 

I do observed in the latest events, if there China make trouble on Philippines "side" Vietnam send out fighter from their side to the south sea to patrol to remember china to "watch your back". China does not like it.

The aircraft carrier has no big roll in this area. Just good enough to bulling the small counties, but it will be a disaster for China if it will sunk by the vietnames airforce or submarines.

Philippines need more sophisticated weapons

September 19, 2013 at 18:37

China is barbaric and lawless. They don't want to recognize the law. The ASEAN code of conduct has been in effect for many years, and China does not have the authority to nullify it otherwise it will be world war (other countries will try to expand if China will be allowed to circumvent the law).

U.S. and the prior Allied powers should not be afraid of China.

September 12, 2013 at 03:56

And when the time comes for the kicking, will you be at the frontline spearheading the effort?

9 dashes, 4 dishes, 1 soup
September 9, 2013 at 11:31

@Mary Pham: "Can it be assumed that China now envies the US, believing the US has done right all along… or China just conveniently forgets the much condenmed centuries of inhumanity and likes to repeat those acts again?"

Excellent point. 

TDog's logic is always perfect. He starts with the assumption that The CPC is right. The US is wrong. Then he builds his arguments from those two foundations the way China is building a structure from the concrete blocks at the Panatag Shoal.  Neither structure will withstand reality very long. 

On March 14, 1988, the PLA killed over seventy Vietnamese at Truong Sa. That alone is enough to disprove TDog's following assertion:


"China, to date, has yet to infringe upon anyone's sovereignty via military bases, SoF Agreements, or military invasion…."


That's where his circular logic comes into play. The PLA did not invade Truong Sa because it has sovereignty over the place to begin with. Sorry about all the dead Vietnamese.

See how easy it is?

Personally, I think the CPC is doomed – but not for the reasons that experts usually cite. I think it is doomed because it is built on a foundation of flawed logic. TDog is glib. But his arguments – as Oro Invictus points out in this thread  - are either irrelevant straw men or they are not true. If China has a great historical claim, it should take it to ITLOS. 

September 9, 2013 at 06:31

Well said, Dr Homes. ASEAN must beware of CHINA. Beijing is driven by the search for territory, resources and bases. International treaties or codes of conduct are not going to be allowed to come in the grab for territory. Continuous territorial expansion is the history of China. Ask their land neighbours. No arguments about Chinese expansion and ambitions.

9 dashes, 4 dishes, 1 soup
September 8, 2013 at 18:52

I think this is your best article yet Prof. Holmes. I looked for sections to quote – and there are too many. 

Ultimately, I don't think it make a difference whether ASEAN & China agree to a COC or not. China is an expansionist, irredentist power. Ultimately, it is planning for a confrontation with the US Seventh Fleet. But first it will seize as many Philippine reefs as it can.

China has no choice. A new US President takes office in 2017. And President Hillary or a Republican will not be the soft touch like the current chief executive. 

If Manila has the means to fight, it will. And then we will watch the Sino-Philippine War of 2015 or 2016 unfold. It's my hope that ITLOS sides with Manila and Beijing comes to its senses. But right now, it's it looks like 1913 all over again.  

"The code of conduct will look forward in an effort to defuse future controversies, not back to reverse past offenses. Beijing, accordingly, is pushing "an assertion agenda." It will grab what it can, then agree to a code that guarantees it can keep what it just grabbed. That becomes the new normal."

That is the most concise analysis I've read of the situation as it stands. 

September 8, 2013 at 10:30

China is going to get it all any way. Economic power translates to military power and military power has always dictated history. It may not happen in the immediate future but that doesn't matter as China plays the long game. All the little guys hide behind the USA but when it's gone there will be nowhere to hide and they will all kowtow to China in the end.

September 8, 2013 at 01:17

totally agree, it seem there is alot of china hater that don't care about fact. the reality is ROC make the original claim before ASEAN nations were decolonized, and because ROC lost the civil war, it has no means to maintain it territorial claim which lead to the island grab that is happening today. this dispute cannot be consider an ASEAN-PRC one, given that most in ASEAN would actually settle in favor of PRC since most don't claim any of the disputed island to begin with, it really a 3 side fight between PRC, Vietnam, and Philippines. 

however my money is on Vietnam and PRC being the big winners and Philippine losing everything. disclaimer, my opinion has no legal basis, it merely an assumption based on their capability in securing their claim. you are correct that the COC doesn't change the balance of power nor their claim, but it should at least put the heart of people to ease. i approve of it.

September 8, 2013 at 00:41

Yes we filipinos are the odd ones out. Thats because we’ve seen oppression and we’ve fought it. The asian century is not the chinese century. Our colonizers sought to obliterate our identity as a people. We’ve bent and changed but we are still here. Our malay brothers may not see our point right now, but by our resistance we remind them that appeasement does not work. China’s is just like spain, who used divide and conquer tactics to conquer us. If we are the odd one out, then let us be a lesson to our malay brothers, appease the enemy and lose your soul and identity.

September 7, 2013 at 15:34


 Why should ASEAN refuse to sign a CoC with China?


Because its a pointless exercise to sign an agreement with a nation that has already agreed to ignore thier agreements.


Secondly, if ASEAN signs it then the Chinese Government will hold them to the agreement while breaking thier side of the agreement with a "what you gonna do about it look on thier face", while blaming ASEAN for the result.


ASEAN was created to prevent its member states being bullied by the US or the USSR, so why shoulf they accept being bullied by China?

September 7, 2013 at 15:29

@talking points.

I realise that english is not your first language but please learn the difference between Island and Shoal, Island and Reef.


China states Island as they want to make a greater claim on it and its surrounding water, but in reality they are no more than shoals and reefs, more likely to be under water in 50 years than above it.


Ask the Marshall Islands the difference between a reef and an Island, they will educate you.

Acadiana Pirate
September 7, 2013 at 11:54

It's theirs, they got it first. Na na nah nah nah!

September 7, 2013 at 04:15

(-1) + (-1) = -2
(-1) * 2 = -2

Wow, cancelling your argument is mathematically possible!

September 7, 2013 at 04:09

Ippon! Haha, it's over man. Grow up, bow down and accept your defeat. No one believes your nonsense. Oro Invictus wins by being sane.

Wendell Lotilla
September 7, 2013 at 02:02

China? Bully!!!!

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