China on Monday (March 7) said that parties negotiating the South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) need to prevent “external interference” in the neighbourhood.
Beijing and the 10 Asean member states have been negotiating such a code for nearly two decades, with an initial target to complete talks by the end of this year.
But negotiations have stalled because of the Covid-19 pandemic and differences between Asean countries and China on fundamental issues.
“We have seen that some non-regional countries are not happy to see the norm being reached and do not want the South China Sea to be calm, because this will make them lose the excuse to meddle in the South China Sea for personal gain,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a press conference on Monday.
“It is hoped that Asean countries can see this clearly and jointly resist external interference and sabotage,” he added
Wang fielded questions via video link – due to Covid-19 concerns – at the annual press conference on the sidelines of the “Two Sessions”.
China claims large swathes of the South China Sea but they overlap with claims by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Wang said: “In the past two years, mainly because of the impact of [Covid-19], the pace of the consultation process has indeed slowed down.
“However, China is always confident in the prospect of reaching the COC, because advancing the COC consultation is in the common interests of China and the Asean countries, and is also a key move to ensure that the South China Sea becomes a sea of peace and cooperation.”
Diplomatic sources said the parties involved have been unwilling to negotiate online because of security reasons. Publicly, however, both sides have cited preferring the “dynamics” of face-to-face meetings, resulting in a delay.
Beijing has also frowned upon Asean nations continuing military exercises with “third-party nations”, namely the United States.
Analysts say other fundamental differences remain stumbling blocks on progress towards the COC.
These include the geographical area that it would cover, the lack of details about cooperation on practical issues, and the absence of a dispute resolution mechanism, said Greg Poling, director of the Southeast Asia Programme and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
China’s recent activities in the South China Sea have also somewhat eroded confidence, said maritime security expert Collin Koh from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“There have been several incidents in the South China Sea over the past two years, especially during the pandemic when countries appeared to be distracted,” he told The Straits Times.
China has significantly increased coast guard patrols and military exercises in the disputed waters since 2020. In early 2021, Chinese fishing vessels started gathering in record numbers at Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands, causing a diplomatic incident with the Philippines.
In June the same year, Chinese Coast Guard vessels began patrolling close to Malaysian gas drilling operations near Sarawak while Chinese fighter planes patrolled near Malaysian air space, prompting Kuala Lumpur to scramble its own air force and issue a diplomatic protest.
“There has been pushback from Asean because China wants to have veto power on military activities,” Koh said. “The pushback appears to be strong.”
Wang, however, insisted that relations with the region are robust, and that the relationship can “only get even better”.
“The Asia-Pacific region is not a chessboard for major powers, and Asean is not a chess piece but rather, an important player in promoting regional development and prosperity,” he said, calling on all countries to join in safeguarding regional stability.
“We will continue to take Asean as a priority of China’s diplomacy, firmly safeguard the Asean-centred regional cooperation structure, safeguard Southeast Asia’s position as a nuclear-free zone... support the use of Asean to mediate regional hot spot issues and oppose the creation of cliques and divisions within the region,” said Wang.
THE STRAITS TIMES (SINGAPORE)/ASIA NEWS NETWORK