Code of Conduct delay adds to uncertainty in S. China Sea: Panel

A China Coast Guard patrol ship seen in the South China Sea last week, in a photo distributed by the Philippine Coast Guard. Beijing claims nearly all of the sea but there are competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
A China Coast Guard patrol ship seen in the South China Sea last week, in a photo distributed by the Philippine Coast Guard. Beijing claims nearly all of the sea but there are competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.PHOTO: REUTERS

BOAO • The delay in finalising a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, a result of the pandemic, will lead to prolonged uncertainty in the area, former diplomats and academics said at a panel discussion yesterday.

With no other dependable platform at the moment to resolve issues, this could easily escalate into military competition if near misses continue around disputed areas.

Beijing claims nearly all of the sea but there are competing claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

In the past year, there have been several incidents in the area, involving the coast guard and military vessels from claimant states.

China and Asean member states had been negotiating the COC before the pandemic hit, originally aiming to finalise it by the end of this year. But talks have stalled since last year after the pandemic forced countries to impose travel curbs, putting an end to in-person meetings.

Dr Wu Shicun, head of the Hainan-based National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said: "For negotiations like that, you need to be in the same room because there are things that need to be argued about, to be ironed out.

"These things cannot be done online because how do you have an argument over video call?"

While the pandemic is gradually coming under control in parts of the region, much time has been lost and it is unlikely the COC can be agreed upon this year, he added.

But there are concerns that the continued delay could lead to prolonged uncertainties that add to tension in the waterway, said former Indonesian ambassador to the United States Dino Patti Djalal.

"There are mainly some competitive strategic relationships that are constantly evolving and developing in the South China Sea," he said, referring to the US, which under the Trump administration had conducted multiple freedom of navigation exercises in the waterway, angering Beijing.

Also speaking at the session were former Philippine president Gloria Arroyo and Professor Zheng Yongnian of the Advanced Institute of Global and Contemporary China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen.

Both Mrs Arroyo and Mr Djalal pointed out that while their respective countries are still willing to work with Beijing on areas like vaccine accessibility, the sentiment is different on the South China Sea.

China's nine-dash line, meant to demarcate its territory in the southern sea, encroaches into Indonesia's exclusive economic zone near the Natuna Islands.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said yesterday that he would send military vessels to "stake a claim" on resources in the waterway after critics complained he had gone soft on China.

Elizabeth Law

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 21, 2021, with the headline 'Code of Conduct delay adds to uncertainty in S. China Sea: Panel'. Subscribe