Washington-based analysts view with some scepticism the adoption by Asean countries and China of a negotiating framework for a South China Sea code of conduct (COC), noting that the code would not be legally binding.
"This framework agreement enables China to appear to be a responsible player, working towards a mechanism that will manage disputes in the South China Sea going forward," Ms Bonnie Glaser, China and Asia security specialist at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, told The Straits Times.
The United States, Australia and Japan, in a joint statement, "acknowledged the announced consensus on a framework for the code of conduct" in Manila on Sunday, but "further urged Asean member states and China to ensure that the COC be finalised in a timely manner, and that it be legally binding, meaningful, effective and consistent with international law".
They stated their "opposition to coercive unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions", and urged claimants to refrain from land reclamation, construction of outposts and militarisation of disputed features - a veiled reference to China's expansion of several reefs in the Spratly archipelago.
The framework agreement, seen as a breakthrough after years of talks with little visible progress, follows a 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea, largely ignored by China, which in recent years has expanded seven features in the disputed sea.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in Manila for the Asean Regional Forum, told reporters yesterday the agreement represented "really tangible progress". Negotiations could start this year, provided "the situation in the South China Sea is generally stable and on the premise that there is no major interference from outside parties", he said. The remark appeared aimed at the US.
Analysts see China's acquiescence to the framework as a tactical move to fend off pressure and appear reasonable, without making any legal commitment.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has been more accommodating towards China's interests, leaving no other Asean country besides Vietnam willing to argue.
"The Chinese have said the COC can be binding among the members," Ms Glaser said. "They don't use the term 'legally' binding. I interpret that to mean that it will be based on trust among the signatories, with no legal force, and no enforcement mechanism."
"In fact, unless the COC is legally binding and has a dispute settlement mechanism, it is unlikely to be any more effective than the DOC has been," she added.
Ms Yun Sun, a fellow at the Stimson Centre in Washington, said: "The COC is symbolic, it is the Chinese way of saying our multilateral approach is working, so the US should back off."