Tough talks expected over South China Sea code of conduct

HONG KONG • Tough negotiations lie ahead over a new pact between China and South-east Asian nations aimed at easing tensions in the South China Sea.

Vietnam is pushing for provisions which are likely to prove unpalatable to Beijing, documents reviewed by Reuters suggest.

Hanoi wants the pact to outlaw many of the actions Beijing has taken over the disputed waterway in recent years, including artificial island building, blockades and offensive weaponry such as missile deployments, according to a negotiating draft of the Asean Code of Conduct (COC) seen by Reuters.

The 19-page draft shows Hanoi is also pushing for a ban on any new Air Defence Identification Zone - something Beijing announced over the East China Sea in 2013.

Beijing officials have not ruled out a similar move - in which all aircraft must identify themselves to the Chinese authorities - over the South China Sea.

Hanoi is also demanding that states clarify their maritime claims in the vital trade route according to international law - an apparent attempt to shatter the controversial "nine-dash line"by which China claims and patrols much of the South China Sea, the draft shows.

"Going forward, there will be some very testy exchanges between the Vietnamese and China in particular over the text of this agreement," said Singapore-based Ian Storey, a veteran South China Sea expert, who has seen the draft.

"Vietnam is including those points or activities they want forbidden by the Code of Conduct precisely because China has been carrying these out for the last 10 years."

Ms Le Thi Thu Hang, a spokesman for Vietnam's Foreign Ministry, said negotiations on the COC had made some progress, with Hanoi actively participating and other governments showing "constructive and cooperative spirit".

"Vietnam wishes related countries to continue their efforts and make a positive contribution to the negotiation process in order to achieve a substantive and effective COC in accordance with international law, especially the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea," she said.


Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have conflicting claims with China in parts of the South China Sea.

The draft also confirms earlier reports that China wants military drills with outside powers in the South China Sea to be blocked, unless all signatories agree to them.

In addition, Beijing wants to exclude foreign oil firms by limiting joint development deals to China and South East Asia.

Experts expect both elements to be strongly resisted by some Asean countries.

"That is unacceptable," one Southeast Asian diplomat told Reuters, referring specifically to the suggested ban on military drills with countries outside the region.

China's Foreign Ministry, in a statement sent to Reuters, said negotiations on the code were confidential, and it could not comment on their content.

The next round of working-level talks is expected to take place in Myanmar in the first quarter of this year, the South-east Asian diplomat said. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has called for the pact to be sealed by 2021, a timetable some envoys and analysts are sceptical can be reached.

Dr Bonnie Glaser, a regional security expert at the Centre for International and Strategic Studies in Washington, said she believed China's more controversial proposals would prove unacceptable to several key Asean members, as well as to the United States and its allies.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 01, 2019, with the headline 'Tough talks expected over South China Sea code of conduct'. Print Edition | Subscribe