China Nixes South China Sea Discussions at Defense Meeting

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According to a report from IHS Jane’s, China’s delegation is refusing to allow the South China Sea issue to be put on the agenda for an upcoming defense minister’s meeting. Specifically, Jane’s reports that China “declined the proposal by ASEAN countries to have the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea on the discussion agenda of the ADMM-Plus meeting.”

The ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus) brings together defense ministers from the 10 ASEAN member states as well as eight other countries: Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. The grouping has met twice to date – in Vietnam in 2010 and again in Brunei in 2013. The 2015 edition will be held in mid-November in Malaysia.

The ADMM-Plus grouping previously avoided the contentious topic of the South China Sea disputes, a decision that seriously undermined the group’s avowed commitment to practical cooperation on maritime security issues. At the 2013 meeting, however, ADMM-Plus did discuss using “practical measures” to reduce tensions and prevent conflict in the South China Sea.

Recently, the ASEAN-only equivalent (ADMM) has also shown more willingness to discuss the issue. At the May 2014 ADMM meeting, the defense ministers discussed “approaches for further enhancing cooperation to reduce tension in view of the recent developments in the South China Sea.” ASEAN has also begun pushing more seriously for a conclusion to negotiations with China over a Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea.

Last week, according to IHS Jane’s, the ASEAN counties came to the ASEAN Defense Senior Officials’ Meeting Plus (ADSOM-Plus) with a proposal for discussing the CoC as well as the existing Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) at the ADMM-Plus meeting this November. In addition to the continuing need for negotiations over the CoC, there have recently been disagreements over how to interpret the existing DoC – whether, for example, the Philippines violated the DoC by filing an international arbitration case against China (as Beijing has claimed) or whether China is in violation of the DoC with its land-reclamation activities in the South China Sea (as the Philippines argues). Jane’s reports that China’s delegation rejected the ASEAN proposal – meaning if China has its way, the South China Sea issue won’t be under discussion at ADMM-Plus this November.

This is only going to contribute to regional perceptions that China is effectively stonewalling CoC negotiations. There’s some truth to this. I’ve argued before that China has little to gain from a CoC that would effectively restrict its ability to bolster its claim to the maritime features it already controls. China sees itself as playing catch-up in the South China Sea – belatedly undertaking actions (from oil drilling to land reclamation and construction) that other claimants have benefited from for years. Thus Beijing is unlikely to agree to a CoC that seriously impinges of its freedom of action in the South China Sea. To quote the general refrain from China’s Foreign Ministry whenever concerns are brought up: “China has indisputable sovereignty over [insert maritime feature] and the adjacent waters. Relevant activity by the Chinese side is within its sovereignty.”

On a broader level, China is resolutely opposed to what it calls “internationalizing” the South China Sea issue. Discussing the problem in any multilateral forum goes against China’s wish to keep the South China Sea disputes solely in the bilateral domain. China has even balked at talking about the South China in discussions with ASEAN as a whole — discussing a potential CoC in a room with the U.S., India, and Japan is especially galling to Beijing.

The Jane’s report is not surprising, then, but it is disheartening. There’s little hope for ADMM-Plus to make good on its 2013 commitment to explore practical means for reducing South China Sea tensions if the CoC can’t even make it on the agenda.

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