BEIJING - In recent days representatives from China and ASEAN held long anticipated talks about a code of conduct for the South China Sea, but few details about what the meeting accomplished have been released. China says participants agreed to discuss the process of creating a legally binding agreement for the area that is crisscrossed by territorial claims and rich in natural resources.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been trying for more than a decade to reach an agreement with China on a code of conduct in disputed waters of the South China Sea.
Such a code would set the ground rules for resolving disputes among the fishing boats, commercial vessels and government ships that regularly ply the contested territory.
China has resisted holding such talks for years, but agreed earlier this year to host a meeting in the Chinese city of Suzhou. Even before the talks began, Chinese officials were highlighting that there was no need to rush the effort, stressing that a code of conduct was not something that could be reached overnight.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei denied on Monday that Beijing was the only one that wants such a gradual approach.
“This is not just China’s view but a consensus of all the parties involved in the talks to gradually consolidate and expand our areas of agreement, while narrowing our disagreements.”
There were few details of what was discussed at the Suzhou meeting. According to a Foreign Ministry statement, participants agreed to carry out concrete consultation on the code of conduct, but no other information or a timetable was provided.
Participants also discussed maritime cooperation and China proposed the hosting of maritime search and rescue exercises as well as the establishment of an emergency hotline.
Zhang Jie, an Asia Pacific security analyst says given that the code of conduct will be legally binding, the challenges of getting an agreement are even greater than the declaration of conduct that was signed in 2002.
Zhang says she thinks the process is going to take a long time, but the fact that the two sides, China and ASEAN, are talking, is a positive sign that both want peace and stability in the region.
“Between China and ASEAN there are 11 countries involved in the talks and there are many different competing interests. I doubt that at this point ASEAN has an agreement on a position that it has together that it is seeking to discuss with China.”
She adds that individual disputes such as those between the Philippines and China will also make progress more difficult.
Earlier this year, the Philippines filed an arbitration case with a United Nations tribunal over what it calls China’s “excessive claims” to the sea.
More recently, it raised concerns over concrete blocks that Manila says China has placed on the disputed Scarborough Shoal. China says Manila has no authority to make such accusations about the island, which it calls Huangyan.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea as its own and some analysts argue that its increasingly assertive territorial claims have led to increased tensions in the area over the past decade.
Some analysts in China argue that by participating in the talks, Beijing is setting itself up for criticism and risks weakening its territorial claims. An opinion piece Monday in the Communist Party newspaper, the People’s Daily, argued that China is being accused of slowing down the process to reach an agreement by putting up innumerable obstacles. The piece argued that the countries making such arguments are trying to use the code of conduct as a tool to contain China’s power, or as a way of pressing China on territorial disputes.