After RCEP, will the South China Sea COC gain momentum in upcoming ASEAN meetings?

Member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will hold the 14th ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM) and the seventh ADMM Plus via video from December 9-10 via video link. The meetings will be focused on enhancing practical defense cooperation and fighting against COVID-19 among member states. 

All eyes are on whether there will be progress in establishing a Code of Conduct (COC) on the South China Sea, especially after the recently-signed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a landmark achievement of East Asian regional cooperation.

South China Sea COC consultations advancing in orderly manner

The South China Sea COC, recognized as an upgraded and strengthened version of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties on the South China Sea (DOC) signed by China and ASEAN countries in 2002, outlines the most important principles in the management of disputes in the waters. 

Consultations for the COC were launched by the two sides in 2013, aimed at safeguarding peace and stability in the region. The talks have been speeding up in recent years and the draft text of the COC was completed in August 2018.

Though COC consultations have been suspended due to COVID-19 pandemic this year, China remains firmly committed and determined to conclude the COC consultations at an early date. 

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called on all parties at the recent 23rd China-ASEAN Summit to overcome the impact of COVID-19 and accelerate the consultations. "China will positively consider convening face-to-face consultations in China, as soon as the COVID-19 situation allows, to advance the second reading of the COC," he said.

As an upgraded version of the DOC, the COC will be a more substantive, effective and operable document that provides further institutional safeguards for peace and stability in the South China Sea, he added.

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi also vowed that South China Sea COC consultations won't be disrupted by outside interference and highlighted how China and ASEAN members have made progress in areas of cooperation like maritime search and rescue, marine environmental protection, marine scientific research and other fields.

Cooperation in various areas promote China, ASEAN relations

The development of cooperation in various areas has further laid the groundwork for South China Sea COC consultations and promoted the process, as well as the relations between China and the ASEAN members.

Since February 2020, the armies have made joint efforts to combat the pandemic by issuing a "Joint Statement of the ASEAN Defense Ministers on Defense Cooperation against Disease Outbreaks" at the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting Retreat (ADMM Retreat) and the online table-top exercise on COVID-19 response among ASEAN member states' military medical forces.

China and ASEAN have taken the lead in conducting regional anti-pandemic cooperation with online meetings held for in-depth ways for tackling the immediate challenge.

In economic cooperation, this year marks the 10th anniversary of establishing the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area (CAFTA) and the trade volume between China and ASEAN has doubled in these years. 

In the first three quarters, China-ASEAN trade reached $481.81 billion, up by five percent year on year, making ASEAN China's largest trading partner and China's industry-wide foreign direct investment in ASEAN topped $10.72 billion, jumping 76.6 percent year on year.

RCEP, the world's biggest free trade agreement (FTA) measured in terms of GDP, will further deepen the economic relations in the region.

With an eye toward the future, more opportunities lay ahead.

Next year marks the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-China dialogue relations and the two sides have agreed to actively accelerate the docking of China's Belt and Road Initiative and the Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025.

Li Keqiang announced in his speech at the 23rd China-ASEAN Summit that the two sides will push for more concrete outcomes in various areas of cooperation by implementing the Strategic Partnership Vision 2030, and the recently finalized Plan of Action to Implement the Joint Declaration on China-ASEAN Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity (2021-2025). 

Noting that China will embark on a new journey to fully build a modern socialist country, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that ASEAN countries and other neighboring countries will be the first to benefit from China's new development pattern and its reform and opening up.