The diplomatic push that China has made at recent regional gatherings highlights its efforts to revitalize regional trust and confidence following recent tensions in the South China Sea. But the real work that China should begin is the quick completion of the Code of Conduct between ASEAN and China in the South China Sea.
Chinese President Xi Jinping seemed to be extending an olive branch at the 22nd APEC Summit in Beijing. The Economist noted his desire for better relations, in particular with the U.S., Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. In addition, when Xi pledged $40 billion for the Silk Road Infrastructure Fund in order to improve its economic links and connectivity across Asia, countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, Pakistan and Tajikistan were found to be hopeful. Meanwhile at the East Asia Summit in Naypyidaw, (Myanmar), Chinese Premier Li Keqiang proposed a friendship treaty with Southeast Asian nations, a defense hotline, and offered $20 billion in loans. Notably, before departing to Myanmar he wrote for The Jakarta Post, proposing to make next year the “Year of China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation.”
The diplomatic choreography that China has performed can plausibly be explained as an endeavor to ease the threat perception caused by its assertiveness in territorial and maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas. Unilateral proposals alone, however, are not effective in addressing this threat perception. As ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh said in an interview with The VOA “We have seen a widening gap between political commitments and actual actions – I mean the real situation at sea. And that is the challenge we have to overcome,” China needs to back up these initiatives with stronger efforts to conclude the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea as quickly as possible. Why?
In the first place, a legally binding COC would do much for trust building and crisis management. Benigno Aquino, the President of the Philippines, said in an interview with The Straits Times on November 19 that “if there’s a formal Code of Conduct, then probably there would be no need for arbitration.” Concluding the COC would show China’s commitment to becoming a “staunch force,” to use Li’s words, for peace and prosperity in East Asia.
Secondly, the COC is a multilateral effort. To seriously negotiate and conclude the COC with ASEAN, Beijing not only commits itself to peace and stability in the South China Sea but also shows its support for ASEAN-driven processes aimed at constructing security architectures in the Asia Pacific. While outside powers are attaching greater importance to ASEAN’s central role in Asia Pacific, such action by China would surely address the concern that China is trying to establish a new order in the region, with a disregard for ASEAN’s role being the first step.
And thirdly, without serious COC negotiations and progress toward the early completion of the COC, the recent initiatives would be seen as nothing more than Chinese efforts to divert regional attention away from its assertive actions taken in the South China Sea like the massive reclamation on Johnson South Reef. According to Darren Lim in The Strategist, “economic incentives are certainly a good way to begin a political realignment, but they’re rarely enough to conclude one. An essential ingredient is lacking – security.”
With all of this in mind, it’s easy to see that completing the ASEAN-China COC for the South China Sea should be a priority in Beijing.
Thuc D. Pham is an SCS researcher at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam. The opinions expressed in the article are those of the author and do not represent the views of any institutions to which the author is attached.