Negotiations for South China Sea Code of Conduct a 'failed process,' expert says

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FILE PHOTO. China has deployed up to 95 ships near Pag-asa Island in the disputed South China Sea as the Philippines conducted repairs there, according to a U.S.-based think tank.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 15) — Negotiations between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea are a "failed process," a maritime expert said, even as the Philippines hails progress in the talks.

"The current process is a joke," Gregory Poling said in an online forum hosted by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines on Tuesday. He is director of Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a Washington-based think tank which has been monitoring the South China Sea dispute.

Poling explained Wednesday in response to questions emailed by CNN Philippines that there was "very little 'agreed' upon" in September 2019, when Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro "Teddy Boy" Locsin, Jr. announced that a draft has been reached as Beijing "softened its insistence on controversial provisions" – which earlier delayed the passage of the accord.

Poling said, "The first reading process, which took up all of 2019, involved taking the 11 separate drafts that each country had submitted, deleting any redundant language, and then copying them all into one document. They did very little to actually bring those drafts into agreement."

'Exactly as China wants it'

He added that most of the salient provisions were left unresolved, including whether or not the document – which would establish the behavior countries should take in contested waters – should be legally-binding. Other sore points remain, including the geographic scope, dispute settlement procedures, and fishing and seabed management, Poling said.

"This is exactly as China wants it. Beijing is not prepared to compromise on most if any of these points and so is simply refusing to discuss them," he said.

While China may have dropped its demand requiring Chinese permission before ASEAN countries can engage in joint military exercises in the South China Sea, Poling stressed that it was an argument already settled two decades ago, during the first attempt to come up with a code.

PH, China hail progress

In an April 8 statement expressing concern over the ramming and sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat off Paracel Islands -- an area both China and Vietnam claim in the South China Sea -- the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs said these incidents should be avoided "given the positive momentum on the discussions on a Code of Conduct."

READ: COVID-19 not stopping 'steady increase of Chinese harassment' in South China Sea

In an August 2019 press briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang said Beijing and ASEAN countries "have vigorously advanced and made important progress in the consultations on a code of conduct."

"We, the regional countries, have the will, wisdom and capability to properly resolve the South China Sea issue and achieve long-term stability, development and prosperity in this region," he said, adding that the situation "remains stable and is improving."

But Poling said China has been "steadily increasing" its presence and the "frequency of harassment" in the South China Sea, and the coronavirus pandemic has not stopped them from doing so. China has so far managed to put up two research stations and sink a Vietnamese fishing boat in disputed waters while the world’s attention is focused on the pandemic.

"It's pretty obvious now that China's not gonna stop. If a global pandemic does not cause China to calm things down in the South China Sea, there's not much that will," Poling said.

More delays amid COVID-19 pandemic

ASEAN has been pushing for a legally binding code for decades but progress has been slow because of resistance from China.

READ: Duterte 'disappointed' with slow pace of negotiations for a Code of Conduct

There was renewed hope for the code in August 2017 when the ASEAN and China adopted the framework or outline which would be used as basis for the negotiations for the code. A year later, an initial draft was agreed upon by the ASEAN and China.

During the ASEAN-China summit in November 2019, the regional bloc adopted the three-year timeline proposed by Beijing, eyeing completion of the Code of Conduct by 2022. Prior to that, the "first reading" was done in September, resulting in an initial draft.

There have been a number of working-group meetings since then, Poling said, but talks could take a backseat amid the coronavirus crisis.

"I expect forthcoming rounds will be delayed amid the pandemic, since the foreign ministers and leaders level ASEAN meetings are all being delayed. That will result in stalling the process further," he said.

He said negotiations for the code should be done "outside the ASEAN," widely seen to be influenced by Beijing, and should be led by the claimant countries.

The Philippines is country coordinator for the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations until 2021. Aside from the Philippines and China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei also have competing claims in the resource-rich South China Sea.