In this May, ASEAN countries and China will hold talks on framework of COC on South China Sea. Before this talks, Chinese Foreign Minister declared that ASEAN and China reached the draft of COC. How do you think about this move by China? Do you think this move means that China agree to co-operate with ASEAN? If China really want to do that or not, why do you think China got that move, after a long time of discussing in vain?
Professor Carl Thayer
: China changed its policy last year when, after the meeting in Kunming, it declared that it would support moving forward on a Code of Conduct (COC) Framework by the first half of this year. Of course, the election of Rodrigo Duterte as president of the Philippines, and his China-friendly policies played a big role. There were no bilateral discussions between Manila and Beijing under the Aquino Administration. Duterte has been to China and will return again this year. Duterte has mouthed anti-American sentiments that must be music to China’s ears. China is also capitalizing on the Trump Administration’s fixation on North Korea and its blindness towards Southeast Asia. China has always viewed the US as an outside power with no role to play in resolving maritime disputes in the South China Sea. These factors account for China’s current diplomacy.
At the moment, ASEAN and China have yet to reach final agreement on their discussion on a Framework COC. Both sides are hoping to accomplish this before the end of June. A final formal COC will take much longer possibly spilling over to 2018. As long as diplomatic momentum continues China will slow its militarization and consolidation of control over its artificial islands and the Spratly archipelago.
How do you think about Cambodia and Laos’ role in these talks? Will these 2 countries give ASEAN favor in contributing COC or not?
: ASEAN has reached consensus on negotiating a Framework COC with China. China fully supports this. Cambodia, which always bases its policy on what China wants, will fall into step. As ASEAN Chair Laos was never proactive on the South China Sea disputes. Laos played a low-key role as a reactive chairman. Cambodia and Laos will play only a marginal role. Of course, if any ASEAN member steps out of line, Cambodia will act as proxy and criticize that country.
Last month, Philippines President spokesman said that Philippines would hold talks bilaterally. Will this decision be a sign that Philippines change position on South China Sea? And how will this move affect the talks between ASEAN and China on COC?
: Fundamentally, all ASEAN members are agreed that maritime disputes can only be settled by the nations directly concerned. If no third party is involved this means bilateral discussions, like Vietnam and China have pursued in recent years. If the dispute concerns sovereignty, this dispute can only be settled by the two countries directly concerned. UNCLOS does not touch on sovereignty issues.
Duterte first wants to improve relations with China and attract funding for infrastructure development. He has been successful. Now Duterte wants ASEAN and China to reach agreement on a Framework COC. Duterte’s support for bilateral discussions will be welcomed by all ASEAN members and China. China has long advocated this position. Bilateral talks between China and the Philippines will only strengthen ASEAN’s position because it removes a major irritant in China-ASEAN relations..
Duterte has not pressed China to implement the Award by the Arbitral Tribunal. But this does not mean Duterte will abandon what the Philippines is entitled to under international law. If bilateral negotiations begin Duterte will be able to use the Award as leverage on China.
How do you predict the result of these talks? Will ASEAN be satisfied?
ASEAN members will accept whatever the Philippines and China agree to. The Arbitral Tribunal Award was directed at only two countries, the Philippines and China, and they have a duty under international law to fully implement it. UNCLOs provides if the two parties cannot agree they should enter into an “arrangement of a practical nature.” This could take the form of cooperation between China and the Philippines over fisheries management, for example.
Can you give more details about Vietnam’s role in these talks? What does Vietnam in in particular and ASEAN in general could do to reach a really useful COC with China?
CT: At the strategic level, Vietnam wants the United States, Japan and other countries to continue to be involved in the South China Sea to constrain if not balance China. Vietnam would like to see these countries apply pressure to halt further militarization of existing artificial islands and occupation of presently unoccupied islands. Vietnam plays a proactive role in ASEAN trying to get consensus on the East Sea issue. Vietnam supports the full implementation of the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), reaching a Framework COC, and ultimately a binding COC for the South China Sea. Vietnam and ASEAN can only use diplomacy and dialogue to encourage China to accept a binding COC. ASEAN (including Vietnam) and China long ago agreed to reach a COC “on the basis of consensus” so any one country can refuse to accept the COC that is not in its national interests.
Thank you for your sharing!