Experts call for a code of conduct among sea claimants

PHILIPPINE COAST GUARD/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS

Through Alyssa Nicole O Tan, reporter

POLITICAL analysts over the weekend backed a senator’s proposal to limit talks on a proposed code of conduct in the South China Sea to applicant countries.

“An applicant-only location in the South China Sea is a good platform to manage or address the intractable dispute as they hold the largest stakes in the hotspot,” said Lucio Blanco Pitlo III, research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation in a Viber message.

“But given the strategic and commercial importance of this waterway, third countries may raise concerns about the impact on their interests of an agreement between the South China Sea countries,” he added.

Senator Maria Imelda “Imee” R. Marcos on Thursday proposed a code of conduct among applicants in place of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China.

“Can’t we create a code of conduct that includes just us applicants in the western Philippine Sea?” Ms. Marcos, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at a hearing.

“Why don’t we formalize this and develop some kind of code, just between us. The first step towards consensus building is a long and arduous path.”

The South China Sea, a major global shipping route, is subject to overlapping territorial claims involving the Philippines, China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. Every year, trillions of dollars in commerce flow through the sea, which is also rich in fish and gas.

“These ideas are worth exploring,” Secretary of State Enrique A. Manalo said at the hearing. “If we can get that group to meet, maybe I would make similar suggestions and see how they respond.”

But Mr Pitlo said other major powers with activities in the region might need to be considered.

“A code of conduct that can prevent or deter maritime accidents between stakeholders, or manage them if they ever occur, is an important contribution to peace and stability in the region,” he said. “But we all know that military and coast guard ships and aircraft from other major powers that are not direct parties to the dispute also operate in the area and whether they can fall under the code of conduct is an issue.”

“There is no harm in the Philippines adopting a code of conduct in the South China Sea among the applicant states, which includes China,” Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy, vice president of foreign affairs at Asian Century, said in a Viber message.

“It will probably speed up the process as the number of countries involved in the negotiations is smaller,” she added.

Rommel C. Banlaoi, chair of the Philippine Institute for the Study of Peace, Violence and Terrorism, said it was wrong to say there had been little progress in the China-ASEAN code of conduct talks.

“The mere fact that ASEAN and China are now holding the second reading of the draft code of conduct is a sign of progress,” he said in a Viber message. “However, there is no doubt that the progress of the negotiations is slow because the devil is in the details, but that should not stop ASEAN and China from negotiating.”

“One of the best ways to move forward is for the four ASEAN applicants to have a consensus first,” Mr Pitlo said, referring to the Philippines. “This is crucial to gain the support of the six non-applicant ASEAN members.”

“If the 10 reached an agreement — a feat that will not be easy to achieve — then they could have better leverage in negotiations with their larger neighbor and biggest claimant, China,” he added.

ASEAN and China have issued many joint statements claiming or promising progress in talks on the code of conduct. In 2017 both sides announced a draft framework and in 2018 a single draft negotiating text.

A 20-page first draft of the proposed code of conduct was written the following year, but disagreements arose between China and ASEAN applicants.

Mr Manalo said the code contains general principles that could be interpreted in different ways. “We want to go beyond 2002 [version]so we strive for a real code.”

“What we really need is a code to deal with all incidents in the South China Sea, to prevent them from turning into an armed incident or even a conflict,” he said.

“We need to put in place measures that reassure countries that whenever something happens, we have ways to discuss it or prevent it from getting worse, or we have rules for action on voyages, ships, etc.”

“There is hope, but it is slow going,” Mr Manalo said, adding that among the contentious issues was whether it should be legally binding.

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