The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and China have agreed on a draft of a document which future negotiations over disputes in the South China Sea will be based on.
The document was “yet another milestone”, said Singapore’s Foreign Minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, at the Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in the island state on Thursday.
It was a “living document and the basis of future code of conduct negotiations”, he added.
China and several Asean nations are locked in disputes over territorial and marine time claims in the South China Sea.
Discussions on the draft document started in March, and was agreed on in June in a China-Asean meeting in Changsha.
Dr Vivian, when asked by reporters about the timeline for a Code of Conduct to be finalised, declined to set down a specific date. He explained that the agreement on the draft does not mean that negotiations were over, and that disputes in the South China Sea were unresolved as the code of conduct “was never meant to resolve territorial disputes.”
“Right now, everyone is glad that we have reached this stage,” Dr Vivian said. “Everyone hopes that we will be able to accelerate the process but I’m not in the position to set specific deadlines,” he said.
He added that it was better to “maintain some flexibility so that nobody feels locked in” for future talks.
“Calls for a binding code of conduct first surfaced in 1995 when China occupied Mischief Reef, a maritime feature claimed by the Philippines,” the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported. “China did not agree to start talks until 1999, and subsequent negotiations led to a non-binding declaration of conduct in 2002.”
Observers, too, were circumspect about the prospects of any settlement of the disputes, and cautioned that there was still a long way to go before any final deals. All that was agreed to on Thursday was a common set of terms of reference for future negotiations.
Singapore’s former ambassador-at-large, Bilahari Kausikan, explained that the draft was “a single negotiating text.”
“That is to say the text contains everyone’s ideas — the ten ASEAN members and China — with no or minimal reconciliation between contradictory or competing ideas,” he said. “In other words, while this is indeed a step forward, there is still a whole lot of negotiation over some very difficult issues to be done.”
He added that it is unclear how long negotiations would take “but the pace of negotiations is also a diplomatic tool used by China and some ASEAN claimant states.”
“The Declaration of Conduct on the SCS took ten years to conclude, and its implementing guidelines a further decade,” he explained.
“So don’t hold your breath.”
Observers also said the agreement on the draft is an attempt to calm down tensions in the disputed sea. In recent years, China has built artificial islands and military outposts on some of the disputed islands, drawing protests from claimant countries.
Such rise in tension saw China and other Asean members send military vessels to the area, raising the risks of confrontation.
The draft agreement also comes amidst the United States’ recent overtures in the region to promote US investments, seen as the Americans’ attempt to counter China’s massive Belt and Road initiative. On Wednesday, the US’ Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, began a four-day visit to the region.
The US is also adding pressure on China over what the former saw as unfair trade practices and agreements. US President has imposed trade tariffs on Chinese goods, and has threatened to increase the tariffs if China retaliated.
Such tensions with the US might have prompted China to look to reinforce its ties with others, including its neighbours.
“It is likely that China will offer some concessions in the code of conduct negotiations and on economic cooperation,” Jinan University Southeast Asian affairs specialist, Zhang Mingliang, told the SCMP.
“Considering how much pressure China has come under from the US, it can no longer be arrogant, otherwise it will be isolated.”