The recent agreement between Asean and China, on the draft framework of a code of conduct in the South China Sea, offers a glimmer of hope that a political solution might be found to the long-festering maritime dispute. That it took the two sides four years of official talks to get to this point is an indication of the intransigent nature of the differences between them on the issue.
For China, the sea constitutes a core interest, comparable in national importance to Taiwan and Tibet, where it feels its sovereignty is indisputable and therefore non-negotiable. For Asean, four of whose members contest China's claims in the sea, the dispute represents a test case in the functioning of international law.
Indeed, freedom of navigation, based on the law, is crucial to the economic interests of many more countries than just Asean's 10 members. The sea, which China claims almost in its entirety, is a waterway through which one-third - or more than US$5 trillion (S$6.9 trillion) - of world trade passes annually. The sea's global significance drew in the countervailing intervention of America, which responded to China's claim by declaring that it had a national interest in the freedom of navigation. The positions taken by two of the world's most powerful countries have upped the ante in a maritime region that shapes the economic and strategic contours of South-east Asia. Moves by China to build airstrips on man-made islands stoked fears about the possible militarisation of the sea and heightened the urgency of the strategic concerns felt by smaller countries.
This is where the code of conduct would be useful. It would build on the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that Asean members and China signed in 2002. That document counsels restraint in the conduct of activities that could complicate or escalate divisive issues. In that spirit, the declaration calls on countries to handle their differences constructively. However, it is non-binding. Importantly, it failed to prevent episodes of tension in the sea. An example was China's rejection of an international court decision which had ruled largely in favour of the Philippines' arguments.
Asean's hope is that maritime claims are not turned into a fait accompli by strong-willed actions. For the sake of peace, proper rules are needed. The challenge now is to set a deadline for the completion of the code of conduct and to make it legally binding. In the long run, it would be in China's interests to accede to protocols that commit countries to responsible behaviour while honouring their legitimate stakes in the outcome of disputes. For Asean, such a document would strengthen relations with China, whose economic rise presents South-east Asia with real opportunities. Many of them are inherent in China's Belt and Road Initiative.