Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Code of Conduct Won't Solve Root Problems in South China Sea

Jayanty Nada Shofa
September 16, 2023 | 11:34 am
President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and Chinese Premier Li Qiang (third from left) wave to the camera shortly before the 26th ASEAN-China Summit in Jakarta on September 6, 2023. (Photo Courtesy of the 43rd ASEAN Summit Media Center)
President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo and Chinese Premier Li Qiang (third from left) wave to the camera shortly before the 26th ASEAN-China Summit in Jakarta on September 6, 2023. (Photo Courtesy of the 43rd ASEAN Summit Media Center)

Jakarta. An ASEAN deputy secretary-general recently tried to deal with the unrealistic expectations that people had for the code of conduct on the South China Sea.

The South China Sea, which accounts for at least a third of the global maritime trade, has Beijing and some ASEAN members claiming over parts of the strategic waterway. To prevent conflict, ASEAN and China are negotiating a code of conduct: a set of defined rules that outline how they should behave in the South China Sea.

Both sides have agreed to finish the negotiations within three years’ time, and more rounds of talks are expected to take place by then. They have also adopted a guideline aimed to speed up the talks.

According to Robert Matheus Michael Tene, the deputy secretary-general for ASEAN's Political-Security Community, people have the "wrong expectations" if they believe the code of conduct can resolve the overlapping maritime borders or exclusive economic zones (EEZ).


The code of conduct is more of a non-aggression pact. In other words, it focuses on urging countries to exercise self-restraint and undertake peaceful means if conflict ever arises. The same goes for the “Declaration on Conduct”: a non-binding document that ASEAN-China had already adopted in 2002. 

“Maritime boundary issues [are something] that you have to negotiate bilaterally. They cannot be solved through the code of conduct,” Michael said at a Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) forum in Jakarta on Friday.

“The declaration and code of conduct are not meant to solve the root causes of the issues in the South China Sea, which are the maritime borders and EEZs," he said.

Michael Tene added: "[The documents] are only meant to create the environment that is conducive for all parties to have friendly negotiations. It is meant to help prevent conflicts and manage the situation if it ever erupts."

The code of conduct also needs more rounds of negotiations before it could see the light of the day.

“There are many rounds. This year, under Indonesia's [ASEAN] chairmanship, negotiations are only scheduled for the second round,” Michael Tene said.

“Expecting us to conclude the code of conduct in 2023, in just the second round, is an unreasonable expectation,” he told the conference.

He added: “I’m not belittling the seriousness of the incidents that had happened in the South China Sea in the past years. Some were very serious. … But the incidents have not led to open conflicts. This shows the declaration on conduct --as well as the code of conduct process-- actually work.”

Beijing and four ASEAN members -- Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam -- hold overlapping claims in the South China Sea. 

China recently introduced a new national map that expanded its territorial claims, just ahead of the 43rd ASEAN Summit in Jakarta. Other claimants, including the Philippines, immediately lodged protests against Beijing’s new map. The controversial map also came not long after Manila accused China of using a water cannon against a Philippine military supply boat in the South China Sea. 

Just last week, ASEAN leaders and Chinese Premier Li Qiang assembled in Jakarta for an annual summit. As expected, the South China Sea was on the agenda. 

The chair’s statement on the summit wrote that some members expressed concerns over the land reclamations and serious incidents in the area, including damage to the marine environment. The members also welcomed the “positive momentum” of the code negotiations, marked by the completion of the second reading of the single draft negotiating texts, among others.

In 1992, ASEAN issued a declaration that called for a peaceful dispute resolution in the South China Sea. A decade later, China and ASEAN issued the Declaration on Conduct document that mandated the establishment of the code.

Read More: Li Qiang Brings ASEAN’s Attention to Skyrocketing Trade Amid Map Controversy

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