Why It Matters

Progress on maritime code

Asean and China are hoping to conclude by June a framework on a legally binding code of conduct (COC) meant to prevent conflicts in the South China Sea. As the term implies, it will just be a "framework". It will most likely express general principles that will govern the crafting of the code itself, such as the need for self-restraint.

However, it marks real progress in an effort that has already dragged on for 14 years. What makes it relevant now is that the South China Sea row between Washington and Beijing is flaring up anew, with both sides exchanging pointed rhetoric over weapons systems that China placed recently on islands it built in the vital waterway.

The COC has been in the works since 2002, but talks have been slow as consensus within Asean, and between Asean and China, has been elusive.

But after an international tribunal struck down many of its claims over the South China Sea last year, China sought to fast-track talks on a COC, and for a framework to be agreed on by the middle of this year.

That there is a deadline, and all parties are willing to sign a document that will commit them to concluding a legally binding COC, is reason enough to be positive that a framework will emerge by June.

Singapore is playing a central role in this effort. As Asean-China coordinator, it has to get all 10 Asean member states and China to sign off on the code.

This will not be a walk in the park but everyone is working to make it happen, Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on the sidelines of a meeting of Asean foreign ministers on Tuesday.

"This is not just a simple matter of negotiating the form of words… The fact that it has taken so long, and we are still in this situation, should give us a sense of reality of the big task ahead."

Even so, a framework is just a lead-in to the real challenge ahead: Putting meat on a legally binding COC. In that, Asean and China remain poles apart.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2017, with the headline 'Progress on maritime code'. Print Edition | Subscribe