China has “full confidence in the prospect of finalizing the Code of Conduct” in the South China Sea, Beijing’s top diplomat said Monday, even as China’s military conducted maritime exercises that a Vietnamese analyst said could complicate the negotiations.
Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi did not give a timeframe for completing the code, or COC, which has been under discussion for years by China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN. The code is intended to reduce the risk of conflict in the South China Sea, where China’s expansive claims overlap with those of several ASEAN nations.
Wang said during a press conference on the sidelines of the fifth session of the 13th National People’s Congress that “advancing COC consultation serves the shared interest” of China and the countries in Southeast Asia.
“As the consultation enters a crucial stage,” Wang said that both China and other regional countries need to “firmly thwart disturbances.”
“Some countries outside of the region are not happy to see the conclusion of the COC … because that would deny them the ground to meddle in the South China Sea for selfish gain,” Wang said via an interpreter.
The foreign minister went on to accuse Washington of “hegemony,” saying that the real goal of the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy is to establish another version of NATO.
“The Asia-Pacific is a promising land for cooperation and development, not a chessboard for geopolitical contest,” Wang said.
The U.S. policy and efforts to strengthen military ties with Japan, Australia and India in the so-called Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) are a “disaster that disrupts regional peace and stability,” he said.
Leaders of the four Quad member states held a snap meeting last Thursday to discuss the Russia-Ukraine war and its possible impact on the Indo-Pacific.
Charles Eden, Australia chair and senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, D.C., said the Quad meeting “highlighted not only their concern over what is happening in Ukraine but also their resolve that such blatant violations of the territorial integrity and sovereign independence not take place in the Indo-Pacific region.”
There have been some “inconsistencies” in the four countries’ approach towards Russia, Eden noted, with India abstaining from condemning Moscow’s war in Ukraine.
But “the Quad meeting highlighted the continuing alignment of the members on the importance of the Indo-Pacific,” Eden said, adding, that it also showed “their intent to pushback more forcefully against China’s increased aggression.”
As Wang was speaking to journalists in Beijing, China was conducting a 12-day military exercise in the Gulf of Tonkin, just 60 nautical miles (110 kilometers) from Vietnam’s ancient capital of Hue.
China’s Hainan Maritime Safety Administration issued late on Friday a navigation warning banning ships from entering an area that overlaps Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The military drills run from March 4 to 15.
The Vietnamese government has protested, asking China to “respect Vietnam’s EEZ and continental shelf, stop and not to repeat any act that complicates the situation.”
Such unilateral actions would make the COC negotiation harder, analysts suggested.
“This lengthy military exercise will really impede the COC process,” said Viet Hoang, a well-known Vietnamese scholar on South China Sea.
“By this, China seems to also send warning signals not only to Vietnam but other ASEAN countries ahead of the special summit of the U.S. and ASEAN later this month,” he said.
President Joe Biden will host ASEAN leaders in Washington, D.C., on March 28-29. The U.S. sees the region as critical to its efforts to push back against China’s rising power.
China claims historical rights to almost 90 percent of the South China Sea, an area roughly demarcated by its so-called “nine-dash line.” Other claimants have rejected those claims and a 2016 international arbitration tribunal ruled that those claims had no legal basis.
China’s diplomats are believed to be making efforts to speed up negotiations with ASEAN on the COC. But there are major stumbling blocks in the way, such as the nine-dash line and the exclusion of interests and rights that outside parties — other than China and ASEAN — have in the South China Sea in accordance with the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
South China Sea claimants include ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The other members of the bloc are Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand. While Indonesia does not regard itself as party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of that sea overlapping Indonesia’s EEZ.
China and ASEAN agreed on a Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2003, but progress on a COC has been slow going, even after a draft agreement was released in 2018.
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