China-Philippines Duel Over a South China Sea Code of Conduct

Both countries are developing their South China Sea strategies, neither of which has much to do with ASEAN.

China-Philippines Duel Over a South China Sea Code of Conduct
Credit: South China Sea via Shutterstock.com

China and ASEAN have resumed discussing guidelines on a maritime code of conduct (CoC) this week, and while China has apparently warmed to the idea of agreed upon maritime rules since it met with ASEAN officials in Suzhou last September to discuss this topic, there is little expectation that China will cede any claims to authority in the South China Sea. Instead, China is expected to advance its own claims, and highlight how it has attempted to cooperate and resolve outstanding disputes, particularly with the Philippines and Vietnam.

In an interview with Filipino ABS-CBN News, foreign affairs analyst and professor Richard Heydarian said China is attempting to lead discussions toward enhancing the Declaration on the Conduct (DoC) of Parties in the South China Sea, after agreeing last year to discuss a CoC with its ASEAN neighbors. “To go back and discuss the 2002 declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea… shows how the Chinese are still unwilling to bind themselves by any legally binding regional principle,” he said. He also said this type of backtracking is an attempt to keep ASEAN’s members from creating a unified position for resolving maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

The South China Morning Post spoke with Chinese analysts who explained Chinese behavior in a similar fashion, although they describe it as China taking a more firm position with the organization after repeated attempts by ASEAN members to make the territorial disputes a diplomatic issue. Zhang Jie, with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China had previously tried to resolve disputes through joint development, which would remain the case. In addition though, China would increase its activity in the disputed waters, and “by showing strength, it is hoped that the claimant states of the South China Sea will be pushed to pay serious attention to Beijing’s position.”

Speaking with Chinese CCTV, Senior Captain Zhang Junshe, vice president of the Naval Research Institute, referenced the DoC and emphasized China’s attempts since 2002 to peacefully resolve territorial issues, such as those with Vietnam and the Philippines, through joint development. Concerning the CoC, Zhang said that some countries were not fully implementing the DoC that was already in place, for instance when the Philippines sent naval vessels to interdict Chinese fishing vessels in their disputed waters, thereby violating the DoC rules by not seeking to resolve the dispute by peaceful means.

The Philippines for its part is attempting to create a common position between Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and itself in order to address China’s South China Sea claims, according to President Benigno Aquino on Tuesday. Since certain ASEAN countries with close ties to China, particularly Cambodia, are hesitant to create a binding position for all member states concerning these territorial disputes, countries like the Philippines and Vietnam may be forced to create agreements outside the ASEAN framework. This will serve Chinese strategy at present, but with these four countries resolving their own territorial disputes through diplomatic means, China could face international pressure to do the same.