How sincere is China on COC?
Before the start of the 33rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Summit in Singapore on Nov. 13, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced that the Code of Conduct (COC) that would serve as rule book to settle disputes in the contested South China Sea should be finished in three years.
Li said that, if finally adopted, the COC would contribute to the attainment of “enduring peace and stability in the South China Sea,” and added that China would not seek hegemony or expansion in the region.
Why it would take another three years for China to sign the COC, Li did not explain. But China could be biding its time until its further buildup in the contested islands, including the several reefs it had seized from the Philippines, would be completed, thus preempting the claims of other countries.
In fact, what Li said is another instance of China’s foot-dragging on the issue, and giving other claimants to the disputed area — the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam — the runaround along with false expectations.
It has been 16 years since Beijing agreed to the adoption of the COC in 2002, and up to now it is still talking about how the code could be crafted. Last year, during the Asean Summit in Manila, Asean and China agreed to a framework on the code and pledged to flesh out the framework within a year. But after a year, nothing happened.
In the past, there was a question of whether the COC would be legally binding or not. Australia, Japan and the United States have urged Asean and China to ensure that the code is “legally binding.” Critics have said that failure to make it enforceable creates doubts about how effective it can be.
During his visit to Davao City on Oct. 29, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi assured the Philippines that China will strictly follow the code whether it is legally binding or not. In Wang’s own words: “Whether or not it is legally binding, any document we have signed, we will strictly abide by it and firmly implement it.”
However, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., after his meeting with Wang, said that Asean and China may not be able to arrive at a legally binding Code of Conduct. “But it will be the standard on how people of Asean, governments of Asean, will behave toward each other — always with honor, never with aggression and always for mutual progress,” Locsin said.
Some analysts have expressed serious doubts that Beijing would allow the COC to interfere with its expansionist designs on the disputed territory, or would respect its legality.
China is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, yet it has rejected the ruling issued in July 2016 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that nullified the so-called “nine-dash line” that Beijing invokes to claim virtually the entire South China Sea. The arbitral ruling recognized the Philippines’ sovereignty over its
The tribunal also said China had violated its obligation to refrain from aggravating the dispute while the settlement process is ongoing.
President Duterte has since relegated the ruling to the back burner, saying that, since it cannot be enforced anyway, the Philippines might as well work to expand its economic ties with China.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly said the South China Sea has been Chinese territory since “ancient times,” and that China’s territorial sovereignty and interests in the region would not be influenced under any circumstances by the arbitral ruling. Xi has also said that China would go to war against any country that would seize “even an inch of our territory.”
If Beijing has adamantly refused to recognize the legally binding ruling by an international body, how much more if the ruling is purely regional and consensus-based like the COC?
Thus, Asean members, especially the four claimant countries, should, for now, forget about getting a fair deal from its rich and powerful neighbor through a Code of Conduct.
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Alito L. Malinao is the former news editor of the Manila Standard. He is on leave as journalism professor at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila and is the author of the book “Journalism for Filipinos.”
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