From left, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and Philippine’s President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. react during a photo session at the beginning of Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) summit on the sidelines of the 42nd ASEAN Summit in Labuan Bajo, East Nusa Tenggara province, Indonesia, Thursday, May 11, 2023.InternationalIndiaAfricaWashington has sought to woo members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), nearly all of which have formed close economic partnerships with Beijing in recent years, as part of its efforts at “great power competition” with Russia and China.Speaking on Tuesday ahead of a meeting with leaders of ASEAN member states, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. said he would push for completion of the decadeslong talks to form a universal code of conduct for the South China Sea.“Where are we having a hard time? How can we fix that problem? That’s what these meetings should be for. And I think we’ll get to that point because everybody wants this to work. Everybody wants to have a code of conduct,” Marcos said on Tuesday. “So, what’s getting in the way? Let’s talk about it.”Marcos added that the disputes between regional powers over conflicting claims in the waterway would not ease until the code of conduct is adopted. Five nations have declared their rights over islands and sea lanes in the South China Sea, including the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, and the People’s Republic of China, as well as Taiwan, a rebellious Chinese province governed by a US-backed authority.
Framework for Resolution
Talks on establishing a code of conduct have been ongoing for two decades, but acquired a new urgency as the United States has increasingly used the disputes to shoulder its way into regional politics, posturing as the defender of smaller ASEAN states against what it calls Beijing’s “expansionism.”WorldManila Refuses to Allow Storage of US Weapons Meant for Taiwan Defense at Philippine Bases19 April, 21:29 GMTMarcos isn’t the only regional leader eager to get the talks moving more quickly. Ahead of a round of negotiations in Jakarta in March, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi told his Chinese counterpart, Qin Gang, that “Indonesia and ASEAN would like to produce an effective, substantive and actionable (code of conduct).”Qin agreed, noting that together, China and ASEAN would jointly safeguard peace and stability in the waterway, which handles some $3.4 trillion in maritime trade each year.
Once finalized, the document will provide a framework, based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, through which they can settle their disputes, which include fishing and drilling rights in the South China Sea.
The US has cast doubts on the code of conduct, saying it fears China is pushing the negotiations in its favor. One influential US think tank has even proposed sabotaging the existing talks, developing an alternative with the ASEAN states that is more amenable to US interests, and attempting to impose it on Beijing.© Wikipedia / Voice of AmericaMap showing countries’ claims in the South China Sea. Map showing countries’ claims in the South China Sea.
‘The Train May Have Already Left the Station’
Ahead of the ASEAN summit, which is being held in Labuan Bajo in eastern Indonesia, experts said they expected little immediate headway to be made in the delicate code of conduct talks.Despite the ongoing negotiations, “we are not optimistic that there will be a signing this year,” Sharon Seah, senior fellow and coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, told Singaporean media.
“The train may have already left the station because of events that are happening on the ground,” she said, referring to an ongoing war of words between Beijing and Manila. The two nations have sparred over fishing rights, US military bases, and the conducting of military maneuvers, among other issues.
Speaking in Germany on Wednesday, Qin said Southeast Asian nations “should not be forced to take sides” in what he characterized as a “new cold war.”WorldUS-China Defense Chiefs Meeting Reportedly ‘Impossible’ Over Sanctions09:47 GMT”[A] new cold war and competitiveness of great powers shouldn’t appear in the Asia-Pacific region. We believe that Indonesia and ASEAN will make their judgment and choice independently and autonomously in the fundamental interest of the stability, development and prosperity of the region,” he said.Other issues discussed at the ASEAN summit included the ongoing political crisis in Myanmar, where ASEAN has struggled to implement a “five-point consensus” for peace since the 2021 military coup; efforts on the eradication of human trafficking; the preparation of a roadmap for Timor Leste’s full membership in ASEAN; and the signing of the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Protocol.