Senior officials from China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in Tianjin, China to discuss the implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and to advance progress toward a more binding Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. The meeting comes as tensions between ASEAN claimants, including the Philippines and Vietnam, and China remain high in the South China Sea, where China has spent the last 18 months carrying out an unprecedented level of artificial island-building and construction on features it occupies in the Spratly Islands. China agreed to begin discussing the Code of Conduct with ASEAN in 2013.
The Tianjin meetings, formally the Ninth Senior Officials’ Meeting on the Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, had little to offer in the way of deliverables. Leaders did walk away with a new mechanism that could help prevent military escalation in the South China Sea: they agreed to implement a foreign ministers’ hotline specifically to handle any emergencies in the South China Sea. According to Reuters, which reported on the hotline, the mechanism will be formally announced in a joint statement after next week’s meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers.
ASEAN diplomats had varying assessments of the Tianjin talks. Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman noted that the meeting included “important progress with regard to the CoC.” “While we proceed with the implementation of the DoC and work expeditiously towards the establishment of the CoC, recent developments have raised tension and eroded trust and confidence among parties,” he added. Thai Deputy Foreign Minister Noppadon Theppitak noted that the states agreed to “maintain stability” in the South China Sea by “implementing several points achieved as a result of this meeting.” His comments likely refer to the working plan for the implementation of the Declaration on Conduct for next year.
For China, which has historically dragged its feet on the Code of Conduct issue, this meeting was an important forum to build confidence with ASEAN states. Mistrust of China has grown in recent months with regard to its island-building in the Spratlys. Additionally, with the Philippines’ ongoing arbitration against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, the South China Sea issue has grown increasingly controversial within ASEAN, where there are multiple states who want to de-emphasize the South China Sea issue to maintain their positive rapports with China. It’s notable that in a press conference ahead of the Tianjin talks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang lays out the agenda as follows:
Senior diplomats from ASEAN countries will join Vice Chinese Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin at the meeting to discuss how to fully and effectively implement the DOC, press ahead with pragmatic maritime cooperation and advance the consultation on a code of conduct in the South China Sea (COC) under the framework of implementing the DOC.
For China, discussions for a Code of Conduct are a low priority. China recognizes the internal divisions within ASEAN over the issue: indeed, just four of ASEAN’s ten members are claimants in the South China Sea. For Beijing, meetings like the one in Tianjin are an important way to build trust and demonstrate that it continues to hold a stake – however small – in the continued consultations toward a Code of Conduct. Indeed, most reporting from the Chinese state press regarding this meeting emphasized how China and ASEAN had vowed to maintain peace in the South China Sea and how the consultations were “friendly and candid.”
Even after this meeting, it seems we are no closer to seeing even a new draft of the Code of Conduct for what could still be years. Before China acquiesced to the process in 2013, ASEAN had managed to arrive at a draft Code of Conduct. When China joined the talks, whatever preliminary progress had been attained with the draft had to be revised, now with China’s input. This meant that provisions like the complete banning of military exercises in the South China Sea had to be reevaluated.
For Beijing, joining the Code of Conduct consultation process has proven strategically advantageous. For example, over the course of the last 8 ministerial meetings on the Declaration of Conduct and Code of Conduct, China has continued to assert its sovereignty over disputed waters with impunity. Its participation in the talks has prevented any real progress, allowing Beijing to continue its activities in the contested Paracel and Spratly Islands without contest from any mutually agreed-upon framework (except the non-binding 2002 declaration).
Stalling on the Code of Conduct, thus, grants Beijing time to seal in its advantages in the South China Sea, with new man-made islands and facilities that can easily be converted or operationalized for military use. Once China is satisfied with its position in the South China, we may begin to see real progress on the Code of Conduct. Unfortunately, that may be years from now.