Asean and China agree on draft framework for code of conduct in South China Sea

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Nav
Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Fiery Cross Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy on May 21, 2015.

GUIYANG, GUIZHOU - Asean member nations and China completed a draft framework for the code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea at a senior officials' meeting on Thursday (May 18).

But it is unclear at this point if the eventual document will be legally binding.

Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin announced the agreement at a press conference after he co-hosted a meeting of the senior officials  in Guiyang, capital city of the southwestern Chinese province of Guizhou.

In a statement, China’s Foreign Ministry said the talks have led to positive achievements and all parties “uphold using the framework of regional rules to manage and control disputes, to deepen practical maritime cooperation, to promote consultation on the code and jointly maintain the peace and stability of the South China Sea”.

Senior officials from both sides said after their meeting that the negotiation of the draft COC framework was completed ahead of the mid-2017 deadline. 

"The draft COC framework will be submitted to the foreign ministers during the Asean-China post-ministerial conference in August in the Philippines for their political support," said Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Chee Wee Kiong at a press briefing. 

Singapore has been the country coordinator of Asean-China dialogue relations since 2015 and will hold the post until next year. 

The draft framework will form the basis for the next phase of negotiations where all parties will start to discuss the specific contents of the agreement to settle disputes in the resource-rich waterways, said Mr Chee, the co-chair of the 14th Senior Officials Meeting on the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). 

When asked by reporters if the COC will be legally binding, Mr Liu said: "I cannot give you a definite answer now."

"I'm sure it will be a very important point of discussion in future consultations," he said.

Mr Liu said the draft framework will remain an internal document, and added that none of the 11 countries involved are allowed to release it to the public as negotiations are still on-going.  "We also don't want any outside interference in this process," he added.

A COC has been in the making since the DOC was signed in 2002.

However, formal talks only began in 2013 after Manila filed a case against Beijing at an international tribunal on overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea. Three other Asean countries –   Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei – as well as Taiwan also claim parts of the disputed sea.

In the three years that followed, progress had been slow in part due to lack of consensus in Asean and China's reluctance to move things forward.

Negotiations only started to speed up last July after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested setting an official timeline to conclude talks on the COC framework by the first half of this year. This came after the international tribunal's ruling that rejected China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea.

Mr Liu told reporters that the draft framework consist of the preamble, objective, principles, basic undertaking and the final clauses. "But these are only the elements of the COC, not the eventual rules of the COC," he added.