The foreign ministers of Asean and China have adopted the framework of a code of conduct (COC) to manage disputes in the South China Sea, thus paving the way for negotiations on an actual code to start in November. Since the document is not public, those outside the circle of negotiators have to go by the leaked version. China's evident sense of satisfaction, revealed in Foreign Minister Wang Yi's comments, suggests that Beijing is getting its way with the 10-member grouping. On their part, with the exception of Vietnam, the Asean countries, caught up with the deteriorating situation on the Korean peninsula, are anxious to put a lid on the issue and move on.
From available accounts, the framework code aims to promote "mutual trust, cooperation and confidence, prevent incidents, manage incidents should they occur, and create a favourable environment for the peaceful resolution of disputes". This, precisely, is what has been missing since May 2009, when China submitted a map to the United Nations including the Nine-Dash Line claim that reverberated across Asean. That was so particularly in the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and even Indonesia, whose exclusive economic zone is under challenge. Beijing's inflexibility hurt its reputation and embarrassment followed when Manila sought international arbitration.
The current situation was caused by parties violating the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. A series of unkept promises followed, including one from Chinese President Xi Jinping to his then US counterpart Barack Obama that China would not militarise the islands it occupied. Since no power stepped forth to enforce the arbitral ruling, which decidedly went against Beijing's claims, the region was forced to accept a fait accompli. China plays the biggest role in disturbing the status quo. Others such as Vietnam and Malaysia, which have added features, albeit on a considerably smaller scale, are not blameless either. This is why it is important for the parties to pay heed to the words of Asean Secretary-General Le Luong Minh to make the code "legally binding".
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan was being candid when he said that the advances on a framework do not mean all the differences have gone away. By focusing on the overall dynamics of the relationship, however, there is an opportunity to achieve positive results. If experience is a guide, the actual COC could be a while coming. Still, Manila's change of tack under President Rodrigo Duterte had eased the slight felt by Beijing and reduced tensions. While China will probably never accept a legally-binding code, even agreeing to language that comes close would signal movement. It is the lot of all to be forced to play with the cards they are dealt with. And there is only so much they can do against a stacked deck.