ASEAN Member States Maneuver to Unravel the South China Sea Dispute
On Monday, Chinese delegate agreed on further talks on the disputed South China Sea with their counterparts at the meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nations, also known as ASEAN. ASEAN member states, such as Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam, have overlapping claims with China over parts of the South China Sea.
Signed in 2002, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is a nonbinding agreement reached between ASEAN member states and China, which initiates solutions on peaceful exchanges on overlapping territorial claims. Ever since, China is criticized in violating the agreement by building artificial islands, exploring energy resources, and conducting military exercises in the region.
The ASEAN member states had shown little enthusiasm in bringing up the matter to the Chinese delegation. China being an economic hegemon in the region, it seems that ASEAN member states anticipate retaliation from pressing China on the matter.
And on Sunday, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines said, “the South China Sea is better left untouched, nobody can afford to go to war.” Moreover, he reassured Premier Li Keqiang in a bilateral talk that he would not bring up the matter in ASEAN negotiations.
Several leaders have consulted US President Trump on the matter, while Chinese delegates expressed concern on the role of US. A spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry told reporters, “we hope that countries outside the region respect the efforts made by regional countries to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea and play a constructive role in this regard.”
Trump has also offered to be a mediator on the issue during a bilateral talk with Vietnamese President Tran Das Quang. Having recently focused on the nuclear problems in North Korea, it could be assessed that US is losing foothold in the South China Sea. Nevertheless, US would only enter the negotiation as a mediator.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, indicated that the State Department would continue the Obama Administration’s policy in conducting military exercises in the South China Sea.
Premier Li had expressed its objective to lead the new negotiation: “China’s greatest hope is for peace and stability in the South China Sea.” On Tuesday, eighteen countries have raised the issue, in addition to several that called for demilitarization of South China Sea.
The latest negotiation aims to establish a code of conduct framework, and seeks to advance the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. However, critics have already argued that the negotiation will take years. Moreover, it is unclear as to whether or not the new agreement would be legally binding.