South China Sea talks resume

China and Asean meet on Code of Conduct to avert escalation of disputes

AFTER a six-month recess, China and South-east Asian nations will meet in Singapore today to continue talks on a Code of Conduct (COC) aimed at preventing territorial disputes in the South China Sea from escalating into armed clashes.

The 10th meeting of the Asean-China Joint Working Group comes amid regional concern over China's recent moves to assert its maritime claims in the South China Sea as well as the East China Sea.

China, which agreed last year to open talks on the code, has said practical maritime cooperation would be a topic at the meeting.

China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims in the resource-rich sea. Singapore is not a claimant state but hopes to see a peaceful resolution to protect freedom of navigation.

Talks on the code started last September in China's Suzhou city.

China had resisted the proposed COC, fearing that it would weaken its claims arising from its "nine-dash line" that spans nearly 90 per cent of the South China Sea.

The Philippines and Vietnam want the code to be as specific as possible, with provisions such as a cessation of naval drills in the South China Sea.

Indonesia, which has been mediating between Beijing and Asean, has already put forward a draft that, among other things, calls for an end to military exercises in disputed waters.

But China, which regularly conducts naval drills in the South China Sea, is not expected to sign on to this draft, analysts say. Instead, what Beijing envisions is "consensus through negotiations" that should "keep the comfort of all parties in mind", Foreign Minister Wang Yi said recently.

"From the Chinese perspective, this means that countries with friendly relations with Beijing should not be pressured to support a hardline code of conduct," said Ms Shannon Tiezzi, associate editor of online policy group The Diplomat.

"It's unlikely that Beijing is overly concerned with Vietnam and the Philippines' 'comfort' being infringed on by an overly lax code of conduct," she added.

Another tough area, analysts say, is Beijing's position that any code of conduct should include only areas outside its "nine-dash line", which excludes nearly all the 3.5 million sq km South China Sea.

"The problem with any code of conduct is that China may insist that it's only applicable to areas where it has no sovereign rights, which basically excludes 90 per cent of the South China Sea," Associate Professor Harry Roque, director of the University of the Philippines Law Centre's Institute of International Legal Studies, told The Straits Times.

"Any code of conduct, any prohibition to the use of force, should be applicable to the entire West Philippine Sea (the Philippines' designation for the South China Sea), whether or not China thinks it has sovereignty or sovereign rights," he said.

Beijing also wants Washington to cease backstopping Manila, something that is unlikely to happen, analysts say. Manila is close to sealing a defence pact that will allow the United States to station more troops in the Philippines for a longer period of time.

Still, as part of its renewed charm offensive towards an Asean wary of China's military assertiveness, Premier Li Keqiang said at a China-Asean Expo last September that it would "proceed systematically and soundly push forward talks" on the COC.