Six months ago, still in the first flushes of its chairmanship, the Cambodian government expressed its heartfelt wish regarding a decade-old draft code of conduct governing how disputes are to be handled in the contentious South China Sea. Cambodia wanted the document to be finalised by the end of its year-long term.
Even at the time, that statement drew wry smiles from weary ASEAN observers. The code, a long-awaited document to which claimant countries would be legally bound, has been sporadically in the works since 2002, when China and ASEAN signed a non-binding Declaration of Conduct.
Wildly optimistic at best, Cambodia’s hopes regarding the code have failed to be realised. Instead, just weeks before the country hosts its final high-level summit as chair, officials yesterday appeared, if anything, to be backtracking on a document that has, at times, threatened to undermine the regional body.
In public remarks and on the sidelines of a workshop launched yesterday for the 10th anniversary of the Declaration of Conduct, a number of regional leaders seemed more than content to put the troublesome document on the back burner.
“We should work towards the eventual adoption of a code of conduct in the South China Sea in a gradual way,” Chinese vice-foreign minister Fu Ying told scores of senior ASEAN officials in an opening address.
His statements were echoed by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.
“I am of the view that ASEAN and China should continue to work together closely... to engage in discussions on a step-by-step basis leading to the eventual adoption of the COC,” Namhong said.
“Step by step” appears to be the watchword. In September, the topic was raised on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, but even those discussions were treated with kid gloves, ASEAN
secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan said in an interview on Wednesday.
“It [was] what they call a zero paper, a skeleton, an attempt to outline what it would look like, but it’s not a draft of the document,” he said.
A day after ministers concluded a meeting in Pattaya regarding the code, Pitsuwan cautioned patience.
“I don’t think November is possible [for a draft],” he said.
Those hoping to see a binding code soon shouldn’t hold their breath, political scientist Carl Thayer warned.
“The Chinese are stonewalling, and the COC is a year or more away,” Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, said.
“China is trying to get through the ASEAN and related Summits/East Asia Summits without much criticism. If so, they are positioned in a fine place for it.”
At yesterday’s opening ceremony, speeches were delivered by Chinese, Cambodian and Thai officials. Tellingly, no platform was given to the Philippines or Vietnam – two of China’s biggest counter-claimants in the South China Sea and perennial thorns in the side of any country that might wish to back China’s claim.
Following the fallout of the July summit – a fiery meeting in which disagreement over the inclusion of key points of tension in the South China Sea forced ministers into a stalemate – diplomacy over the code has been on the rise. Months after the bloc failed to issue a joint communique for the first time in history, at least publicly, officials from the Philippines and Vietnam have been restrained.
But although they remain diplomatic, ASEAN claimant states are showing signs of frustration over a snail’s pace that benefits few more than China.
“ASEAN’s ready. We’ve always been ready for negotiation," a member of the Philippines delegation, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. “Maybe you have to ask China when [that will happen].”
Members of the Chinese delegation, for their part, refused to speak to reporters after yesterday’s workshop, saying it was closed to the media.
Ten years on, meanwhile, the non-binding Declaration of Conduct remains only as strong as the signatories’ willingness to abide by it.
“The problem with the COC [and] DOC is not so much about the content of the document itself. It has more to do with political willingness on the part of China and ASEAN,” Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an ASEAN expert at Kyoto University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, said.
It had more, he said, to do with “the ability of ASEAN to come up with a common position vis-a-vis South China Sea and the perception of individual members of ASEAN, whether they want to work as a team in dealing with China, or they prefer to interpret a situation based on their narrow national interests”.
“If the DOC doesn’t work, then how can we be sure any new platform will work?” Chachavalpongpun said.