Experts want code of conduct among sea claimants

PHILIPPINE COAST GUARD/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS

By Alyssa Nicole O. Tan, Reporter

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

“A South China Sea claimants-only venue is a good platform to manage or address the intractable dispute since they have the biggest stakes in the hotspot,” Lucio Blanco Pitlo III, a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, said in a Viber message.

“But given the strategic and commercial importance of this waterway, third states may express concerns about the impact of any South China Sea littoral states’ agreement on their interests,” he added.

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

“Can’t we make a code of conduct that includes only us claimants in the West Philippine Sea?” Ms. Marcos, who heads the Senate foreign relations committee, said at a hearing.

“Why don’t we formalize and come up with some kind of code, just between us. The first step of consensus-building is a long and torturous path.”

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

“Those ideas are worth exploring,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique A. Manalo told the hearing. “If we can get that group to meet, I would maybe make similar proposals and see how they react.”

But Mr. Pitlo said other major powers with activities in the area might need to be taken into account.

“A code of conduct that can prevent or deter sea incidents between the claimants or manage the same if ever they occur is a major contribution in regional peace and stability,” he said. “But we all know that military and coast guard ships and aircraft of other major powers that are not direct parties to the dispute also operate in the area and whether they can be covered by the code of conduct is an issue.”

“There’s no harm if the Philippines initiates a code of conduct in the South China Sea among the claimant-states, which include China,” Asian Century Vice President for External Affairs Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy said in a Viber message.

“It will probably hasten the process, given the number of countries involved in the negotiation is fewer,” she added.

Rommel C. Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, said it is wrong to say that there has barely been any progress in code of conduct talks between China and ASEAN.

“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. “There is no doubt, however, that the progress of 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 go forward is for the four ASEAN claimants to have some consensus first,” Mr. Pitlo said, referring to the Philippines. “This is crucial in getting the support of the six nonclaimant fellow ASEAN members.”

“If the 10 would reach an agreement — a feat not easy to attain — then they can have better leverage in negotiating with their bigger neighbor and the biggest claimant, China,” he added.

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

The year after, a 20-page first draft of the planned code of conduct was written, but there have been disagreements between China and ASEAN claimants.

Mr. Manalo has said the code contains general principles that could be interpreted in various ways. “We want to go beyond the 2002 [version], that’s why we are making an effort to have a real code.”

“What we really need is to have a code so that we can manage any incidents that happen in the South China Sea to prevent them from erupting into either an armed incident or even conflict,” he said.

“We have to have measures in place that will assure countries that whenever something happens… we have ways of discussing it or preventing it from getting worse or we have rules of engagement in travel, ships, etc.”

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