The agreement between Asean leaders and China to finally begin negotiations on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea was a positive outcome at the end of Asian Summits this week.
But it is hardly the breakthrough that China and its apologists, witting or unwitting, say it is.
In the first place, the code was promised 15 years ago in the last paragraph of the Declaration on the Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea, signed on November 4, 2002. But negotiations never took off, thanks to China’s strategy of delay. It had signed the DOC in the waning months of Jiang Zemin’s presidency, but despite China’s official policy of a “peaceful rise”, Jiang’s successor Hu Jintao never accorded the code priority. Under the far more authoritarian Xi Jinping, the “peaceful rise” policy has been shelved in favour of an even more assertive, expansive nationalism.
Secondly, the negotiations will finally take place under circumstances china has redefined to be much more favourable to its interests. During the case the Philippines filed against China’s claim at the Hague arbitral tribunal, Beijing ramped up its land-reclamation and building in the Spratlys. Then it successfully dissuaded Manila from using its landmark legal victory in the Hague of July 2016 as leverage, and prevented Vietnam from deploying more oil and gas rigs in disputed waters. It has – according to President Rodrigo Duterte himself – raised the possibility of war, contrary to the spirit of every agreement it has entered into with Asean.
Thirdly, the start of negotiations on the Code of Conduct early next year is exactly that: merely a start. How long the process will last, what form the document will take, and (the most important question) whether the code will be legally binding will be largely determined by Beijing. Its strategy has paid off; delays have weakened the hand of the Asean as a bloc and of its claimant countries, even including Indonesia. To be sure, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang hit most of the right notes at the Asean-China summit last Monday. “We hope the talks on the code of conduct will bolster mutual understanding and trust. We will strive under the agreement to reach a consensus on achieving early implementation of the code of conduct,” he said. But the words rang hollow.
Lastly, we must bear in mind the lessons of recent history. When they don’t meet its interests, China has learned to ignore the fine print of the agreements it enters into.
The DOC itself, often used by Beijing as proof of its commitment to regional diplomacy, has been repeatedly dishonoured. Paragraph 5 of the Declaration begins: “The Parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.” This vital principle of self-restraint has not stopped China from converting seven rocks or reefs it occupies in the Spratlys into islands, capable of sustaining military operations.
The Philippines and its partners in Asean must enter into the negotiations on the Code of Conduct with these lessons in mind, and with calibrated optimism. The breakthrough lies at the end, not at the start.