MANILA - Negotiations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China for a code of conduct (COC) on the disputed South China Sea have been delayed, and experts say the original target date for its conclusion is now “off the rails” because of the current situation at sea, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nguyen Hung Son, Director General and Head of the Institute for the South China Sea of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, said negotiations for the COC have already been delayed for half a year now, with no meeting on the code taking place even virtually.
ASEAN and China earlier agreed on a target to conclude the COC by 2021. The first reading of the single negotiating draft on COC negotiations was held in Penang, Malaysia in 2019.
The Philippines is coordinator of ASEAN-China dialogue and co-chair with China on the COC negotiations.
“It’s going to push whatever deadline that ASEAN and China may have indicated on the negotation process. So I think things look even gloomier there," Nguyen said Friday in a virtual talk on maritime challenges in Southeast Asia organized by the United States Embassy.
"Neverthless, it's still worthwhile to try to attempt to reconnect China on the COC, at least to give the voices that support and multilaterism a chance within China to convince itself that it’s still something worthwhile doing,” he said.
Claimant countries have recently scored Chinese actions in the South China Sea, including pointing a radar gun at a Philippine Navy ship, the sinking of a Vietnamese boat, and establishing administrative districts on the Paracel and Spratly islands in the disputed waters.
This, while governments are busy addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan late 2019 and spread across early this year.
Nguyen said China needs to show political will and create an environment for the pursuit of the code of conduct, pointing out its aggressive activities in the South China Sea.
“To salvage the COC negotiation process, China needs to look at its behavior and its activities in the South China Sea and show its willingness, its political will to create a conducive environment for ASEAN to be convinced that the COC is still a viable investment that ASEAN needs to put on,” Nguyen said.
Jay Batongbacal, Director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and the Law of the Sea, said parties have yet to reach the meat of discussions on the COC.
Vietnam’s questions were supposed to be discussed in the next meeting but this was postponed due to the pandemic.
“Because of that I am sure that the original target date for conclusion is just off the rails,” Batongbacal said as he urged ASEAN states to unite and use the lull in the negotiations to communicate, identify a common ground and come up with a unified position that they can present to China.
Batongbacal added the talks may resume but reach a deadlock again on issues if the current trend of Chinese expansionist activities continues.
“[China] is able to resist because it sees the different southeast Asian nations as being fargmented but if they unify, if they come up with unified positions on South China Sea and begin acting in a coordinated and concerted manner, I can bet you that China will respond, will adjust to that because they themselves know that they do not want, they cannot have a hostile neighborhood, especially a neighboorhood that surrounds their entire southern coastline,” Batongbacal said.
Gregory Poling, Senior Fellow and Director at the Asia Maritime Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, urged ASEAN to come together to move China to become a “responsible stakeholder” and take steps to protect the marine environment in the South China Sea and preserve the livelihood of fisherfolk.
Poling showed images of the damage on the reef surface around Philippine-claimed Pagasa Island in 2016 and a pile of dead clams in the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in 2018, when Chinese vessels finished their harvest of giant clams as reported by ABS-CBN News.
“The South China Sea is turning into a wasteland. It is a boneyard. The vast majority of shallow reef surface in the South China Sea is severely damaged. Some of it is dead permanently and if there is no cooperation to halt the scale of fishing, prevent the purposeful destruction of marine environment like this… that was specifically called out in the 2016 arbitral award and give the South China Sea marine environment time to repair itself, there will not be any fish left by the time a code of conduct is finished,” Poling said, referring to a United Nations tribunal's ruling that invalidated China's excessive 9-dash line claim to nearly all of the waters.
Batongbacal warned China is moving to exercise exclusive control of the resources of the South China Sea and exclude everyone else from enjoying its benefits, urging the next Philippine administration to prioritize marine protection in dealing with China.
“Focus on the environmental aspect first as a priority because that’s the one that is sustaining the damage right now. That’s the common interest of all. Everyone would really suffer from the loss of marine environment in the South China Sea. So it should be a priority,” Batongbacal said.
Nguyen noted that the pandemic did not stop China from pursuing activities in the South China Sea and lauded the Philippines for invoking its win in the arbitral court when it condemned China’s creation of two new districts in South China Sea as it encompasses Philippine territory and maritime zones in the West Philippine Sea.
The West Philippine Sea is the Philippines' exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
Nguyen said it shows that the Philippines has not “trashed” the ruling.
On April 30, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs issued a statement strongly protesting China’s establishment of the “Nansha” and “Xisha” districts under the jurisdiction of a self-declared “Sansha City” as announced by China on April 18.
The Philippines filed on April 22 diplomatic protests against China on the matter, and for the radar gun incident with a Philippine Navy ship in Philippine waters.