Framework of maritime code skirts thorny issues

Eventual code of conduct on S. China Sea 'not for settling disputes', won't be legally binding

A two-page framework of a code of conduct (COC) meant to prevent conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea from erupting into violent confrontations will neither guarantee a legally binding arrangement nor raise specific issues that have provoked Beijing.

The final document, seen by reporters, envisions a code that is "rules-based", with "a set of norms to guide the parties and promote maritime cooperation".

Asean foreign ministers are set to endorse the framework on Sunday.

The framework emphasises that the COC "is not an instrument to settle territorial disputes or maritime delimitation issues".

It instead promotes "mutual trust, cooperation and confidence", prevents and manages incidents "should they occur", and creates "a favourable environment for the peaceful resolution of disputes".

It likewise seeks to "ensure maritime security and safety and freedom of navigation and overflight".

After the endorsement by the ministers of Asean and China on Sunday, the framework will then be elevated to the leaders, who will note the approval and instruct both sides to take steps towards actual negotiations for a COC.

The South China Sea is a vital sea lane where oil and natural gas have been discovered in several areas.

Finalising the code has acquired urgency due to tensions between China and its smaller neighbours with competing claims to the waters, such as the Philippines and Vietnam. Other claimants are Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

Efforts to finalise the code have dragged on for years. In 2002, China and Asean settled for a declaration calling on claimants to exercise self-restraint in activities that would escalate disputes in the area.

However, its non-binding nature and lack of provision to sanction misbehaving claimants render it useless against aggression.

The framework is mum on whether the COC must be legally binding.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano earlier hinted that he is open to an accord that is not legally binding if it will expedite the negotiations.

Professor Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines' Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said the only thing a non-legally binding COC will do "is to create this atmosphere which we hope... will enable parties to continue talking and finding a negotiated solution in the future".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2017, with the headline 'Framework of maritime code skirts thorny issues'. Print Edition | Subscribe