MANILA - A draft of the code of conduct (COC) China and Southeast Asian Nations is significant since it at least signals the start of negotiations on regulations to govern behavior in the South China Sea, an analyst said Friday.
The document, however, did not identify actual provisions that Beijing and the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will debate on, said Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
"Its importance is in the fact that it signals the negotiations to have started, that there are actual proposals now that will be discussed. Whether those proposals will remain on the table or be rejected, we’ll find out only as time passes," he told ANC's Dateline Philippines.
Batongbacal said the parts of the documents that he knows only so far contain "all the suggested texts and provisions given by all of the members."
The parties would still have to settle the order of priority, the time frame for discussion of each subject, and the date of its effectivity, he said.
Another ongoing debate about the code of conduct is "whether or not this will be a legally binding document," but the parties seem to have forgone the question in the meantime "to first see whether, see first what the content," he said.
In the draft document, as reported by Agence France-Presse, Vietnam called for countries to stop building artificial islands and establishing military installations, the strongest opposition to Beijing's activities.
Other than this, there was little sign of serious resistance from other countries, reports said.
Batongbacal said the arbitration ruling that favored Manila might be "one of the sticking points in the negotiation," but the Philippines should be at the forefront of guarding against any violation of it.
"I’m sure that the other ASEAN countries, at least with respect to [parts of] the award that are also beneficial to them, will probably try to protect that aspect of the award," he said.
"I don’t expect China to agree to anything in that COC which would indicate that it is implementing the award somehow," he added.
Batongbacal said China “seems a bit in a hurry and even optimistically looking forward to building this house with ASEAN knowing it now has a dominant position in the region, whether military, economic, political."
"It would definitely be something that China wanted, the contents of it will always be something that China wants, but we’re not sure whether the Philippines itself or any of the ASEAN countries will get the deal that they want vis-à-vis China and whether they will make a mutual and equal concessions on the text of the COC," he said.
There are also concerns that China "has the upper hand" because apart from the artificial islands it has built in the region, it might also use these negotiations as a "pretext for keeping other countries somehow involved in the South China Sea disputes," he said.
In its pronouncement and description of this event, Beijing seemed to underline that the talks will go smoothly without "varying external interference, which is veiled reference to other parties outside ASEAN and China who might somehow get involved or give inputs."
"It seems to me a signal that China wants to use this process as well to fend off any external involvement of any kind, or even commenting on this issue or even maybe going to the extent of hostaging the process to things it doesn’t want other countries to do," he said.