Our Privacy Statement & Cookie Policy

By continuing to browse our site you agree to our use of cookies, revised Privacy Policy and Terms of Use. You can change your cookie settings through your browser.

I agree

The 'code' discussions and stability in the South China Sea

Imran Khalid

A rusted-out World War II Philippine warship
A rusted-out World War II Philippine warship "grounded" on Ren'ai Jiao for over 20 years. /Xinhua

A rusted-out World War II Philippine warship "grounded" on Ren'ai Jiao for over 20 years. /Xinhua

Editor's note: Imran Khalid, a special commentator on current affairs for CGTN, is a freelance columnist on international affairs. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

In the quest for regional tranquility, the realization of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea stands as a collective yearning for harmony between China and its ASEAN counterparts. The strategic recalibration underway in the South China Sea marks a pivotal juncture, where the Philippines' inclination towards collaborative engagement with fellow ASEAN members and China has become a critical factor.

This action will not only address the immediate concerns within the contested waters of the South China Sea. Emphasizing this collaborative spirit, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi articulated her nation's eagerness to collaboratively finalize the COC in the South China Sea promptly. The sentiments expressed during a joint press conference with Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo in Manila resonate with a commitment to diplomatic synergy, heralding an optimistic perspective on Indonesian President Joko Widodo's visit to the Philippines from January 9 to 11.

The Code of Conduct (COC) is a pivotal accord meticulously forged between China and the ten ASEAN nations, delineating the norms governing the South China Sea theater. Since the revival of COC deliberations in September 2013, an assiduous tapestry of endeavors has been underway to propel the conclusive crystallization of this crucial document. The COC framework, originating in May 2017, was further enhanced with the unveiling of the Single Draft Negotiating Text of the COC in the South China Sea in August 2018. Subsequently, symbolizing collaborative commitment, China and ASEAN agreed in July 2023 to embark on a joint journey spanning three years, with the task of concluding COC negotiations by the autumnal horizon of 2026.

As the paramount player in ASEAN's landscape, Indonesia has been consistently championing the conclusive realization of the Code of Conduct (COC). Marsudi's declaration mirrors the collective yearning within ASEAN for a swift establishment of a code of conduct, one embraced by all regional nations through diplomatic negotiations. Indonesia's fervent drive for the COC's finalization also underscores the prevailing frustration and vigilance among South China Sea claimant nations towards the Philippines. The latter's persistent collaboration with external entities and divergent actions from ASEAN's stance stirs unrest in the South China Sea, undermining the cohesion of the regional bloc. This not only jeopardizes ASEAN's unified front, unsettling its regional standing but also erects impediments to the stability and tranquil progression of the region.

In recent times, the Philippines have persistently contested China's territorial claims in the South China Sea, exemplified by its provocative maneuvers during joint patrols with the U.S. The escalation of tensions in this region primarily traces its roots to the active involvement of the United States. Manila, with Washington's backing, has intensified its provocative actions, thereby exacerbating an already delicate situation in the South China Sea.

Adding to the complexity, the Philippines is attempting to forge an alternative Code of Conduct that deliberately excludes China, a move that is not only misguided but also deviates from a constructive path. Any COC lacking China's involvement is not only ineffectual but also improbable to garner recognition from fellow ASEAN members. The South China Sea intricately involves China's core interests, and China plays a pivotal role in pertinent affairs. Any attempt to craft a separate "code" without China's engagement is inherently flawed and is unlikely to garner recognition from fellow ASEAN members.

A Chinese coast guard ship and a Philippine navy vessel near the South China Sea, August 5, 2023. /CFP
A Chinese coast guard ship and a Philippine navy vessel near the South China Sea, August 5, 2023. /CFP

A Chinese coast guard ship and a Philippine navy vessel near the South China Sea, August 5, 2023. /CFP

ASEAN stands as a crucial neighbor in China's geopolitical landscape, fostering a robust trade partnership and elevating bilateral ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership. While the South China Sea discord does not encapsulate the entirety of China-ASEAN relations, it holds sensitivity, capable of influencing the broader bilateral dynamic. Skillful navigation is imperative, as mishandling this issue could serve as a "lever" for external forces to destabilize and disrupt the intricate fabric of China-ASEAN relations. Addressing these complexities remains pivotal for sustained regional cooperation. 

Two decades have passed since the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). The DOC has been a linchpin in stabilizing the volatile South China Sea scenario and deftly handling lingering disputes over the years. Preventing the South China Sea imbroglio from souring China-ASEAN ties is a diplomatic imperative. Currently, China and ASEAN find themselves at a pivotal juncture in "code" negotiations. To leave these negotiations incomplete risks undermining the DOC, eroding mutual trust between China and ASEAN, and turning the South China Sea into a power battleground anew.

If the Philippines aligns with the U.S., it risks distancing itself from fellow ASEAN nations on South China Sea matters. The COC negotiations face challenges, but the primary threat in the South China Sea emanates from external disruptions aiming to transform it into a theater of conflict. In a shift, the Philippines, in pursuit of its selfish interests, seeks divergence from ASEAN unity in the COC's third reading by aligning with the U.S.'s "Indo-Pacific Strategy" and forming its own clique. This strategy is apparently geared towards exerting pressure on China during negotiations, introducing a precarious dynamic into the delicate diplomatic engagements. The intricacies of this diplomatic equation demand commitment to the ultimate goal – formulating and adopting a code of conduct – without which the delicate balance in the region may tip towards heightened geopolitical tensions and strategic posturing.

The COC discussions are progressing positively, acting as a vital "pressure relief valve" to prevent conflicts stemming from disputes among various parties. The reality is that upholding peace and stability in the South China Sea is paramount for fostering the Philippines' development and prosperity. Simply put, embracing the DOC and the COC stands as the sole path for China and ASEAN nations to construct a harmonious and peaceful region in the South China Sea. Success hinges on the collective pursuit of a shared objective, surmounting challenges together in unified progression.

(If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at opinions@cgtn.com. Follow @thouse_opinions on Twitter to discover the latest commentaries in the CGTN Opinion Section.)

Search Trends