S.E.A. VIEW

Time for Asean to push harder for Code of Conduct

The Johnson South Reef, which is in contested waters in the South China Sea. It is high time for Asean to ramp up its efforts to implement the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and negotiate the final contours of a Cod
The Johnson South Reef, which is in contested waters in the South China Sea. It is high time for Asean to ramp up its efforts to implement the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and negotiate the final contours of a Code of Conduct in the region.PHOTO: DEPARTMENT OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS, PHILIPPINES

The Philippines will host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit this year and Chinese President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi are both expected to attend.

That will provide an opportunity for both sides to revive their frayed top-level diplomatic channels. Ties between the two countries have deteriorated dramatically since 2012, largely due to their territorial spats in the South China Sea.

The informal dialogue between Mr Xi and his Filipino counterpart, President Benigno Aquino, in Beijing late last year marked the first face-to-face exchange between the two leaders and raised hopes for more conciliatory bilateral relations this year.

Unfortunately, however, there are growing signs that 2015 will be another challenging year. Recently, Mr Wang defended China's controversial reclamation work and construction of facilities in the contested waters as being "lawful and justified" and accused other claimants of engaging in illegal building. The five other claimants are the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

That salvo follows other signs of increasing acrimony, including a recent decision by Filipino officials to effectively evict 18 Chinese experts employed by the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP). The State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC) has a 40 per cent stake in NGCP.

The Philippine government indirectly raised national security-related concerns as a basis for refusing to renew the visas of the Chinese nationals, who have been involved in operating, maintaining and expanding the Philip-pines' electric grid.

Last month, the Philippines was expected to submit additional arguments to the Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague, which is reviewing Manila's formal complaint against China's sweeping maritime claims and expanding paramilitary and construction activities in the South China Sea.

Favouring bilateral diplomacy, dialogue and consultation, Beijing has fervently opposed Manila's call for compulsory arbitration as an act of provocation.

China has responded by recently ramming three Filipino fishing boats navigating close to the Scarborough Shoal, a contested feature located 198km west of Subic Bay in the Philippines and 900km away from the nearest Chinese coastline, which Chinese paramilitary forces occupied after a perilous stand-off with the Philippine Navy in mid-2012.

Against the backdrop of renewed maritime tensions, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario urged Asean to show unity and exhibit greater resolve. He warned that China's alleged aim to "establish full control" over the South China Sea represents a "watershed" moment for Asean's credibility.

Latest satellite imagery released by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington indicates expanding Chinese construction activities in the Spratly chain of islands where Beijing has reportedly been building artificial structures which can serve both civilian and military purposes. For instance, the Fiery Cross Reef, a highly strategic contested feature, has been artificially expanded by 11 times over, with approximately 200 Chinese troops garrisoned in the area.

Filipino defence officials estimate that China has completed almost half of its reclamation project in the Fiery Cross, which could host its own airstrip by the year-end as a potential prelude to the imposition of an Air Defence Identification Zone in the South China Sea.

This represents a flagrant violation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea, which explicitly discourages claimant states from unilaterally altering the status quo.

China has also just finalised a comprehensive survey of fishery resources in the contested areas, while celebrating the discovery of the Lingshui 17-2 gas field, which is located about 150km south of the Hainan province.

In retaliation, the Philippines has decided to move ahead with refurbishing its facilities on disputed features, particularly its airstrip on the Thitu island, the second-biggest feature in the Spratly chain of islands.

Dismissing Beijing's accusations of "hypocrisy", Manila contends that its "repair" operations are in "no way comparable to China's massive reclamation activities", which permanently and decisively alter the nature of contested features - a violation of international law.  

Asean seems to have taken notice of this alarming situation.

During the Foreign Ministers' Meeting (FMM) in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, earlier this year, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman stated that the participants in the two-day event "shared the concern raised by some foreign ministers on land reclamation in the South China Sea".

In the following weeks, at the Asean Defence Senior Officials' Meeting Plus, held in Kuala Lumpur, the Asean leadership pushed for placing the DOC and Code of Conduct (COC) issue on the agenda of the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting Plus, which is to be held in November.

With Singapore slated to take over as the country coordinator for Asean-China relations in August, there is cautious optimism that there will be a more pro-active push on the COC issue.

Top Singaporean leaders have been increasingly vocal in their call for a rule-based resolution to the disputes in the South China Sea. Singapore's Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam stated recently that his country is committed to addressing growing worries over how "the progress on the COC was a little muted compared with the way land reclamation was being carried out", and that Singapore shares the "common goal to try and do as much as we can to try to get to a proper document on (the) COC".

There is growing expectation on Asean to deliver on the issue.

And there are, at the very least, growing signs that all key Asean members have refused to turn a blind eye to China's posturing in the South China Sea.

It is high time for Asean to ramp up its efforts to implement the DOC and negotiate the final contours of a COC in the region, Otherwise, anxious claimant states such as the Philippines would have little choice but to increasingly rely on alternative strategies to push back against Chinese territorial assertiveness.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is a political science professor at De La Salle University in the Philippines.

S.E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.