A Non-aggression Pact in the South China Sea?

Southeast Asian nations are moving forward on negotiating a nonaggression pact with China in the South China Sea.

On Tuesday, Associated Press reported that diplomats from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) had drafted a communique that is to be unveiled during a meeting of the organisation this weekend.

The communique will be based on a framework agreed upon in May during a meeting in Guiyang, China.

Based on a review of relevant documents, Associated Press reported that the draft communique will ask ASEAN diplomats ‘to begin earnest discussions on a substantive and effective code of conduct on the basis of the framework as soon as possible’.

The Associated Press also story suggested that any pact that arises out of negotiations would be ‘aimed at preventing clashes in the South China Sea and will likely hold back on criticism of China’s aggressive acts in the disputed waters’.

While the framework agreed upon in May has not been made public, Associated Press noted that it made no mention of making the proposed code of conduct legally binding- something ASEAN countries support and China opposes.

The draft communique also reportedly contains no reference to China’s artificial islands or to the concerns of Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia, the three ASEAN nations disputing China’s actions.

China’s Dominance

The planned nonaggression pact comes in the backdrop of China’s increasing dominance in the South China Sea.

Last July, China ignored a decision at the international tribunal in The Hague, that ruled in favour of the Philippines. The tribunal condemned China’s violation of the Philippine’s exclusive economic zone and its construction of artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago. It also declared there was no basis for the so called nine-dash-line, that China uses to claim 90% of the South China Sea.

However, the Philippines stance seemed to change in late April, when its new president, Rodrigo Duterte stopped challenging Chinese claims after that country’s president Xi Jinping reportedly threatened war.

Meanwhile, China has continued to build its fortify its artificial islands and build airstrips on them- most notably on Fiery Cross Reef, which features three-kilometre-long runway long enough for all types of Chinese military aircraft.

The US Navy has continued to carry out ‘frequent presence operations’ and ‘freedom of navigation operations’ (FONOPS) in the region, but these have made little difference. Furthermore, the election of Donald Trump has aroused anxiety about his intentions in Asia.

Already, some US experts are calling for their country to accept China’s preeminence in the region.

All of this feeds into India’s own concerns. On Wednesday, the South China Morning Post reported that several southeastern nations were looking at the India-China face-off in Doklam, wondering what such Chinese assertiveness might portend for them.

India has similarly monitored China’s behaviour in the South China Sea and wondered what it has in mind for the Indian Ocean region.

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