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Thayer South China Sea Code of Conduct: China's Foreign Minister Visits Southeast Asia

Thayer South China Sea Code of Conduct: China's Foreign Minister Visits Southeast Asia

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Published by Carlyle Alan Thayer
An assessment of the visit to Southeast Asia by China's new Foreign Minister, Wang Li, and prospects for China-ASEAN discussions on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.
An assessment of the visit to Southeast Asia by China's new Foreign Minister, Wang Li, and prospects for China-ASEAN discussions on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.

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Published by: Carlyle Alan Thayer on May 10, 2013
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Background Briefing:South China Sea Code of Conduct:
China’s Foreign
Minister Visits Southeast AsiaCarlyle A. ThayerMay 5, 2013
[client name deleted]China's new Foreign Minister Wang Li has agreed to start talks with ASEAN on thelegally binding Code of Conduct (CoC) and setting up an Eminent Persons Group(EPG) to complement government-to-government talks. Wang, on his maiden trip tothe region as China's top diplomat, reached agreement on these points with hisIndonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawa, on Thursday. We request yourassessment of the following:Q1. Do you see any grounds for optimism that China will seriously enter intodiscussions with ASEAN on the CoC soon? Will China
s positions change?ANSWER: China committed itself to discussion a Code of Conduct for the South ChinaSea when it agreed to the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in 2002 and again inmid-2011 when it agreed to the Guidelines to Implement the DOC. China raised COCdiscussion with ASEAN officials at the 19
China Senior Officials’
Consultations. As a result of Foreign Minister Wang L
i’s visit to Southeast Asia
agreement was reached to hold a meeting at Director-General level of the WorkingGroup on the DOC that would discuss the COC in August. China will definitely meetwith its ASEAN counterparts to discuss the COC but this does not mean thatagreement will be reached any time soon. Nonetheless, agreement to meet todiscuss the COC between China and ASEAN marks an important development. Chinahas not agreed to multilateral discussions in the past.Minister Wang also revived a proposal for an Eminent Persons Group
(EPG). China’s
original proposal called for an equal number of representatives, ten for ASEAN andten for China. It remains to be seen what the composition of the new EPG will be andwhat relationship it will have with official discussions. The EPG could get boggeddown on all sorts of technical issues and derail the COC process.Q2. Indonesia, the biggest economy in Southeast Asia, was the second countryvisited by Wang after Thailand in this first foreign trip since his appointment inMarch. His next stops were Singapore and Brunei Darussalam. What is the purposeof his trip? Some skeptics say it i
s part of the Chinese “divide
conquer” strategy.
What is your assessment of this view?ANSWER: It was notable that Minister Wang omitted Vietnam and the Philippinesfrom his present trip. Minister Wang is obviously trying to detect differences within
Thayer Consultancy
ABN # 65 648 097 123
ASEAN and to exert subtle pressure to isolate the Philippines if not Vietnam.
Minister Wang’s visit to Thailand was to ensure that Thailand, as ASEAN’s country
coordinator for China, continues to take Chinese preferences into account. TheYingluck Government is always trying to curry favour with Beijing by playing a
“neutral” role in China
-ASEAN relations.
China’s approach may be gleaned from an
unofficial commentary written by RuanZongze, Deputy Director of the China Institute of International Studies, in the
(May 4). Ruan wrote, “Indonesia and Brunei… are different from the Philippines
and Vietnam, because they want the disputes to be settled through negotiations.
Thailand and Singapore… don’t want the disputes t
o affect the overall China-ASEAN
friendly and cooperative relations.”
Ruan then offered this punch line, “China is not afraid to talk about ‘code of conduct’
but first it has to be determined which country (or countries) is violating the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Otherwise, no
code of conduct
will seem credible.”
 In sum, when ASEAN officials meet with their Chinese counterparts, they can expectChina to make a link between progress on the COC and a change of behavious by
“some countries” who China
claims are stirring up trouble in the South China Seaand drawing in external powers (read the United States).Q3. Some say the measures announced signaled China's strategic courtship of Indonesia, which Beijing sees as an effective peace-broker in the region as it is notone of the claimants. Is it important for China to preserve this 'friendly elephant'image for political and economic gains? If, so why? If not, why not?ANSWER: China has definitely signaled out Indonesia for special attention not leastbecause Indonesia has taken the initiative to push forward the COC process withinASEAN. It should be recalled the Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa first announcedthat China and ASEAN had agreed to hold a meeting to discuss the COC. At that timeno further details were announced. Then Foreign Minster Marty became critical of 
China’s behaviour. Minister Wang’s visit was to assuage Indonesia
. Wang succeededbecause Indonesia has now agreed to his proposal to create an Eminent Persons
Group to run in parallel with official discussions. China aims to play on Indonesia’s
predilection for consensus building in the hopes of pressuring the Philippines to tonedown its rhetoric and drop its legal claim to the United Nations.
Q4. Wang has reiterated that “
China is a staunch force in maintaining peace and
stability in the South China Sea”. Is what China has done of late in line with this
reiteration?ANSWER: We should judge China not only by its words but by its deeds. It is apositive first step for China to meet with ASEAN officials as a group to initiatediscussions on a COC. Chinese propaganda, however, has gone into over drive toargue that the Philippines has illegally occupied Chinese territory and has beendisrupting China-ASEAN relations.In reality China has put itself above international law. It refuses to clarify themeaning of its nine-dash
line. China asserts “indisputable sovereignty” over
South China Sea but will not let independent third parties judge the merits of China’s

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Carlyle Alan Thayer added this note
This revisions correct some typographical errors in the original including the spelling of Wang Li.
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