JUDGING from the past week’s regional developments, statements (or silence) from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) capitals and leaders, there will definitely be no final agreement yet on the thorny issue of the Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea.
The COC negotiations will drag on to its 16th year of debate or diplomatic exchanges between the 10 Asean member states and the Communist People’s Republic of China—with no definite end in sight.
And this is one instance I wish I am eventually proven wrong by the Beijing regime and Chinese President Xi Jinping, internationally accepted as the most powerful leader of his 1.3 billion people—the world’s second strongest economy.
Simply said, the problem involves China, whose nine-dash-line claim on almost all of the South China Sea region is based on its own sovereign right—exclusive territorial ownership—assertion.
This conflicts with the rights of Asean members Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines on some areas of the South China Sea under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) of which China is a signatory.
The UNCLOS provides that the marine areas up to 200 nautical miles from the nation’s (or sovereign country’s) shoreline is the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of that country to explore, exploit and develop for its own benefit.
That gives Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines the right to economically develop—not the sovereign ownership right—what is internationally and legally recognized as international waters, up to 200 nautical miles from their respective shorelines.
Beijing has official condemned—and threatened “appropriate reactions”—to Japan’s expanding its naval defense capacities; South Korea’s actions on North Korea’s most recent rocket-test firing; US statements against China’s military buildup in the Spratly islands; and President Rodrigo Duterte’s plan to plant the Philippine flag on the West Philippine Sea atolls and the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and rename the Benham Rise plateau as the Philippine Ridge.
China, naturally does not say nor hint that these are reactions of Japan, South Korea, the US and the Philippines to its military and communications facilities buildup in the international waters of the South China Sea.
Furthermore, China has said it will never recognize—nor submit itself to—any United Nations arbitration or any international court settlement of its border disputes. It wants to settle these bilaterally, regardless of any international convention it has signed.
Significantly (and as a matter of course?), this Beijing foreign policy comes at the time when it has attained world economic standing and its current naval, nuclear and communications expenditures are increasing, particularly its submarine fleet and drone technology.
Even its so-called trade liberalization policies are clearly designed to render the Chinese Communist Party’s ruling central committee in complete control and ownership of economic entities, instead of encouraging private industries and management to take the lead in commerce and industry.
In other words, for Beijing might is right. The stateowns and controls all it wants—omnipotent.
The Chinese diplomatic offensive is quite obvious in the state visits of Xi and its push for global economic cooperation “with everyone,”and financial and infrastructure technological aid, while bullying the less economically and militarily capable Southeast Asian countries.
So what alternative do the Asean members have to deal with China? This is most important to the Philippines now because it is te chair of this year’s Asean Summit. And China is hosting in May the Asean’s top leaders to a Beijing convention to ostensibly finalize the Code of Conduct on the controversial South China Sea.
Members of the Center for Philippine Futuristics Studies and Management have suggested that:
The Code of Conduct be based on the rule of international law, and must be signed and respected by all.
The Asean 10 consolidate their unified position—on the total ban of any military troops, facilities, within the international waters of the South China Sea.
Freedom of navigation and passage should be open to all types—military or civilian—of shipping of all nations within the recognized international waters of the South China Sea.
All signatories, including China, respect the provisions of the UNCLOS as legally binding.
Agree with the Australian suggestion that the China sign a non-aggression treaty with all the Asean members.
All the Asean 10 strengthen their financial and trade alliances with all—the European Union, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the US, Canada, Central and Latin Americas, the Middle East, Central Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific island states. Do depend on China only for economic and technological aid. Expand the Asean export markets.
In cases of any dispute or disagreement, all parties shall submit to the United Nations courts of international arbitration and settlement.
Only the English language version of the Code of Conduct shall be the officially recognized document.
The relevant provisions of the Asean Treaty of Peace, Amity and Friendship shall be incorporated into the final version of the Code of Conduct.
(Reactions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Gil H. A. Santos is a veteran international news correspondent, editor and publisher; he teaches journalism and geopolitics at the Lyceum of the Philippines University).