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After Show of Military Might, China Offers to Restart S. China Sea Talks

A Chinese SU-27 fighter flies over the East China Sea, in this handout photo taken May 24, 2014 and released by the Defense Ministry of Japan, May 25, 2014.
A Chinese SU-27 fighter flies over the East China Sea, in this handout photo taken May 24, 2014 and released by the Defense Ministry of Japan, May 25, 2014.

China has agreed to restart talks with worried Southeast Asian countries on a maritime code of conduct to restore its image abroad after COVID-19 and months of reminders that it’s the waterway’s most militarily powerful country.

Beijing said July 1 in a consultation with Southeast Asian leaders that it would resume negotiations on a code, pending since 2002, that would help ships avoid mishaps and resolve any accidents in the vast, crowded South China Sea.

China and its negotiation counterpart the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has shunned the topic so far this year. Both sides grappled instead with the COVID-19 outbreak, which cast wary eyes on China as the disease’s origin.

Also in the first half of the year, China flew military planes at least eight times over a corner of the sea near Taiwan and sent survey ships to tracts of the waterway claimed by Malaysia and Vietnam. Last week it held South China Sea military exercises with an apparent focus on amphibious assaults.

“I think that the reason why China is offering the talks is because it feels very confident that it’s in a position of strength and it can shape the direction or the trajectory of the discussions and its counterparts are not in a strong position, because of coronavirus (and) because they haven’t any assets in the seas,” said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor of politics and international studies at International Christian University in Tokyo.

ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam claim parts of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea. China and Taiwan claim nearly all of it. Rival claimants value the waterway for its fisheries, shipping lanes and fossil fuel reserves.

After doing little on the code for years, China and ASEAN agreed in 2017 to work on it again. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang estimated in 2018 the code could be wrapped up by 2021, but last year Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said via state media that it could happen even sooner.

The COVID-19 outbreak, which hit China in February before coursing into Southeast Asia, has blocked progress on a code year to date, analysts believe. The last talks took place in October.

China’s recent military activities and previous land reclamation for artificial islands in the sea give it more bargaining power as well as tarnishing its image elsewhere in Asia, scholars believe. Southeast Asian claimants particularly resent China for adding an estimated 3,000 acres of landfill into the sea and using some newly created islets for military installations.

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Officials in Beijing hope at the same time to shed the image that it spread COVID-19 into Southeast Asia, where Malaysia and the Philippines among other countries have fought caseloads instead of focusing on their maritime claims, analysts say.

“All these events have worsened China’s international image, so I think it may make sense for China to ask ASEAN to restart the code of conduct negotiations as a way to restore its image in the region,” said Le Hong Hiep, a fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

Coronavirus cases have topped 160,000 in Southeast Asia, with nearly 4,600 people dead.

Chinese leaders probably expect the talks to go their way if moved online instead of in person to avoid any COVID-19 risk, Nagy said. Online talks make all comments formal, he said, sparing the informal sideline chats that Southeast Asian leaders hold when in person.

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The code of conduct represents a chance for rivals to cooperate as well as head off accidents. Filipino and Vietnamese fishing boats have sunk after run-ins with Chinese vessels over the past year. In 1974 and 1988, Vietnamese sailors died in clashes with the Chinese.

But talks are expected to be tough, possibly leading to a deal without a clear geographic scope and lacking an enforcement mechanism, analysts believe. Either element could imply that no one country has a full sovereignty claim, a blow to governments facing nationalist populations at home.

“It’s already 2020 and they still haven’t got to the meat of (the code) really,” said Jay Batongbacal, international maritime affairs professor at University of the Philippines. “We could end up with another very general document.”

But he said the parties feel pressured to come up with some kind of code, eventually. “They have no choice but to keep on trying to negotiate this thing, it’s the only thing going between ASEAN and China and for either one to call it off completely would be seen as a failure,” Batongbacal said.