Amidst rising disputes over illegal Chinese construction in the South China Sea and Chinese intransigence in dispute resolution, the country is reported to have arrived at a negotiating position with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on the South China Sea issue, a move that would give China more leeway in dealing with countries like Japan and the United States.
Foreign ministers of Southeast Asian nations and China meeting on Sunday adopted a negotiating framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, which seeks to advance a 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea, which China had already discarded.
China, instead, has built seven man-made islands in disputed waters, three of which are equipped with runways, surface-to-air missiles and radars.
The latest Chinese move would help China buy time to consolidate its maritime power, say critics.
China has now got parties in the South China Sea dispute agree that the framework is only an outline for how the code will be established.
The framework also fails to outline the need to make the code legally binding and enforceable. It also does not speak of a dispute resolution mechanism.
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said the adoption of the framework created a solid foundation for negotiations that could start this year, if “the situation in the South China Sea is generally stable and on the premise that there is no major interference from outside parties.”
He said there had been “really tangible progress” so there was “a need to cherish momentum on the South China Sea”.
For some members of the Association of South East Asian Nations, which have been struggling for years over China’s disregard for their sovereign rights and its blocking of fishermen and energy exploration efforts, getting China to the negotiating table itself is a long-cherished goal.
China, however, has not committed itself to negotiations on a legally binding and enforceable code for the strategic shipping route.
Beijing insists on its sovereign rights to areas in the South China Sea where other littoral states like Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines claim some or all of the various shoals, reefs and islands.
The sudden shift in China’s position is both intended to delay a resolution of the South China Sea disputes and confuse other stakeholders like Japan and the United States over its strategic objectives in the South China Sea, through which more than $3 trillion of ship-borne trade passes annually.