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Long way ahead for China, ASEAN

Rodion Ebbighausen
May 22, 2017

China and ASEAN have recently agreed to a framework for a code of conduct aimed at preventing clashes in the South China Sea. But will it lead to a legally binding agreement that puts an end to the territorial dispute?

Südchinesisches Meer Spratly-Inseln
Image: Reuters/F. Malasig

China and the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) said last week that they had agreed on a draft framework for negotiating a legally binding code of conduct designed to prevent clashes in the strategic South China Sea (SCS).  

Details of the agreement reached weren't disclosed, but many believe it is a definite sign of progress on reaching a final code of conduct that the parties committed to 15 years ago.

China's Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said the text of the framework would remain secret for now, and Philippine officials said it would be submitted to foreign ministers for consideration in August.

Until recently, progress has been slow amid disputes over the body of water that China claims virtually in its entirety. China has wrangled with ASEAN countries like the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei over the resource-rich SCS in a bitter territorial spat that has flared on and off for decades. China has claimed most of the sea, through which around $5 trillion in maritime trade passes every year, while the other countries have competing claims.

In an attempt to bolster its assertions, Beijing has been carrying out land reclamation projects and building artificial islands by piling sand on top of reefs and coral atolls. On top of these man-made islands, it has been constructing airstrips and ports, which many suspect could be used for military purposes. The US also believes that China's island-building could threaten navigation within the disputed area.

Bill Hayton - Asienexperte beim British think tank Chatham House
Hayton: 'I think the process of these discussions is a useful confidence-building measure. The fact that everybody sits around the table and talks and argues about these things is much better than not talking'Image: DW/R. Ebbighausen

In a DW interview, Asia expert Bill Hayton says he remains skeptical about the possibility for the two sides to reach a mutually acceptable agreement soon. Still, he stresses that the process of these discussions is a useful confidence-building measure, and that talking and arguing about their disputes is much better than not talking.

DW: The situation on the Korean Peninsula now seems to dominate international headlines and the territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) seem to have vanished from the agenda. What is your view on it?

Bill Hayton: I believe there are a few things going on at the same time. One is that China has been engaging in a charm offensive in Southeast Asia and is not doing anything that is going to upset its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Things have been quiet for almost three years now. Since tensions flared up between China and Vietnam after the controversial deployment of an oil rig by the Chinese in disputed waters, China seems to have behaved itself much better. I think Beijing recognized that it lost quite badly from that incident and since then it hasn't done anything like that again.

At the same time, China has been building these massive islands in the region. Maybe that's absorbing all its energy. When the islands are finished, we might see a return to a more assertive behavior.

Another thing to observe is that China also has a territorial dispute with Japan and is putting a lot more effort into the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands row. Historically, it's never tried to have both fronts active at the same time. Usually when one is active, the other is less active. And that seems to be what's happening at the moment.

We also have a crucial Chinese Communist Party congress this year and maybe the authorities there don't want to upset regional stability ahead of the key event. Furthermore, China is trying to get people to support its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, which is another reason why it probably wants to keep things quiet at the moment.

Infografik Karte Südchinesisches Meer Öl und Gasvorkommen Englisch

Some claim that China has already achieved what it wanted to achieve in the South China Sea, and that's the reason why the situation is a bit calmer now. What is your take on this?

I think this argument is definitely at least partly valid. The Chinese already occupy the Paracel Islands; they are building their bases there.

They are also building artificial islands in the SCS, but they haven't finished with the construction yet. These are going to be very powerful bases. Many experts seem to think that they want to build on Scarborough Shoal as well. And that would make it the third point of the iron triangle in the SCS.

The Chinese have lots of reasons for wanting to build those islands. Some of them have to do with territory and national narrative, while others include things like wanting to hide their nuclear submarines in the SCS or project power near the straits of Malacca to prevent the Americans from blocking their supply routes in the case of a war.

President Donald Trump's administration has sent confusing signals on how it will approach the SCS disputes. It has so far done almost nothing in terms of concrete action. How then do you assess US commitment to push for a solution to the issues and counter China's growing influence in the region?

I would like to point to the recent controversy surrounding the movement of the US aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which was supposed to sail to the Korean Peninsula but didn't go there according to the initially announced timeframe. It reached its destination later. Apparently it could have taken a shorter route through the SCS, but chose not to and circumvented it.

It left people wondering whether this was also a kind of a gesture toward China to get them to work harder on North Korea.

I think what the Trump administration is doing is causing a lot of uncertainty to Southeast Asian states. They had certainty when it came to US policy under the previous Barack Obama administration.

They wanted more US engagement, but they had at least some solid sense of what the Americans were prepared to do.

But now they don't know how strong Trump's commitment to them is, and whether he is prepared to put all their interests on one side and focus only on North Korea. That seems to be what's happening at the moment.

Given the uncertainty, the countries there are also considering whether they would have to rely on other players like Japan, which is increasing its engagement, for instance by providing ships, financial support and holding joint exercises, among others.

Countries like Vietnam appear to be getting increasingly closer to the US and Washington has also eased some of the sanctions put in place against the communist regime there. How is the Vietnamese government viewing the Trump presidency and US policy?

One thing Vietnam is obviously doing is rebuilding its relationship with China. They have been holding bilateral talks and begun repairing their ties. The fact that they are both communist regimes also helps. Party-to-party links are much more cordial and allow them to engage in far amicable discussions than in the case of government-to-government talks.

But Vietnam is also building up its military and buying an array of armaments, including submarines that could prove quite a threat to Chinese ships. So they're trying to do two things simultaneously: build friendly ties with Beijing while bolstering military capabilities, in a way that they could pose a significant military threat if they ever came to a confrontation.

South China Sea dispute

It's reported that China and the ASEAN last week reached an agreement on a draft framework for a code of conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea. What is the significance of this development?

I don't think the framework itself is going to lead to anything soon. But I think the process of these discussions is a useful confidence-building measure. The fact that everybody sits around the table and talks and argues about these things is much better than not talking.

But there are a couple of reasons why I don't think there will be an agreement. One is I believe that China retains the desire to build on Scarborough Shoal at some point. And therefore it won't sign a deal that would hinder it from doing so.

The other thing is that China hates the idea of being legally bound by an agreement, but that's what the Southeast Asian states want. For them there's no point signing a code of conduct if it doesn't have any teeth. And so they want to have some sort of an instrument to control China's behavior and China doesn't want its behavior controlled.

Another area of disagreement is that China is trying to basically limit the applicability of this code of conduct to the Spratly archipelago, while others like Vietnam and the Philippines want to also include the Paracels and Scarborough Shoal. There seems to be no movement so far toward reconciling these differences.

Bill Hayton is an expert on Asia at the British think tank Chatham House. He is the author of "The South China Sea: the struggle for power in Asia" published by Yale University Press and named as one of The Economist's books of the year in 2014.

The interview was conducted by Rodion Ebbighausen.