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

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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.

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