ASEAN begins talks on Code of Conduct in South China Sea amid continued tensions

Charmaine Deogracias, VERA Files / February 6, 2017 / ABS-CBN News

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) starts discussions on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (SCS) this month with two contentious issues: the non-militarization of occupied features, and restraint in the activities in the SCS, specifically those involving China. 

ASEAN with the Philippines as chair leads these discussion, amid a situation that has not really changed and where the SCS remains an area of tension even with improved ties between two of its claimants, the Philippines and China, Philippines Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Policy Enrique Manalo said.

 “Of course our relations with China improved over the last few months but it doesn’t mean the situation has necessarily changed, not only from our perspective but even (from those of) the other ASEAN countries,” Manalo said. “So there is that challenge to ensure that when we have a framework.”

The Declaration on the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), which was signed by all members of ASEAN and China on Nov. 4, 2002, lists the principles of self-restraint and non-militarization in Paragraphs 5 and 6.

Paragraph 5 partly states, “The Parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.”

Paragraph 6 enumerates non-military activities that parties concerned can undertake such as marine environmental protection and marine scientific research pending a comprehensive and durable settlement of the disputes.

The 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea has been the scene of conflict between countries with territorial claims in the area.

In 2014, Vietnamese and Chinese ships engaged in a water cannon battle when China placed an oil rig near the Paracels, site of a violent clash between China and South Vietnam (before the 1975 reunification of North and South) 40 years ago. The battle resulted in the sinking of a South Vietnamese warship and the death of more than 53 Vietnamese and 18 Chinese servicemen.

In 1995, the Philippines discovered that China had built structures in Mischief Reef (Panganiban Reef to Filipinos and Meiji Jiao to the Chinese), 150 miles west of Palawan and 620 miles southeast of China. Recent photos showed the reef has been upgraded into what looks like a military facility with its own an airstrip.

Mischief Reef is just 21 nautical miles from Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal to Filipinos and Ren ai Jiao to the Chinese) where the Philippines has deliberately grounded BRP Sierra Madre, a dilapidated U.S. built-landing ship manned by nine members of the Philippine Marines.

China’s occupation of Mischief Reef, which the Philippines vigorously protested, underscored the need for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. The discussions led to the 2002 DOC.

In the last three years, China has converted the seven rocks and reefs it occupies into islands, through reclamation, fortifying them with what Western military analysts say are military installations.

Incidents of fishermen of one country venturing into claimed territorial waters of another, and being arrested, are common in the SCS. But one such incident led to a bigger conflict.

The arrest of Chinese fishermen in Scarborough shoal (Panatag or Bajo de Masinloc to Filipinos and Huangyan to the Chinese), 124 nautical miles off the shores of Zambales province in northwestern Philippines, on April 10, 2012 led to a two-month standoff which prompted the Philippines to file a suit before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The Arbitral Tribunal’s eventual decision favored the Philippine position on maritime issues nullifying China’s all-encompassing 9-dash line claim over the South China Sea.

Last year, senior officials of ASEAN and China agreed to speed up consultations on an implementable Code of Conduct (COC) and work towards the finalization of a framework by middle of this year. The talks take place from Feb. 29 to March 2 during the ASEAN-China Working Group meeting in Boracay Island. Read more…

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