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Thayer Consultancy

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Background Briefing: ASEAN’s Calls for China to Craft a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea Carlyle A. Thayer April 25, 2013

[client  name  deleted]   Once  again  there  has  been  a  call  by  the  ASEAN  leaders  for  the  crafting  of  a  Code  of   Conduct  in  for  South  China  Sea  but  China  has  not  given  any  clear  indication  when  it   will  sit  down  with  the  bloc.  We  request  your  assessment  of  the  following:   1.  ASEAN  seems  helpless  and  it  seems  nothing  will  happen  for  as  long  as  China  stalls.   What  can  ASEAN  do  to  break  this  impasse  and  convince  China  to  begin  negotiations   for  the  Code  of  Conduct  (COC)?   ANSWER:   It   takes   two   to   tango.   ASEAN   is   stuck   in   a   bureaucratic   rut,   having   reached   consensus   and   committed   itself   to   a   Code   of   Conduct   with   China   it   is   doggedly   pursuing  this  objective.  China  will  only  sit  down  with  ASEAN  if  there  is  something  to   be  gained,  like  deflecting  the  heat  of  criticism  from  the  US,  Japan  and  other  maritime   powers.   China   has   set   progress   on   implementing   the   Declaration   on   Conduct   of   Parties   (DOC),   yet   not   one   single   cooperative   project   has   gotten   off   the   ground.   ASEAN  diplomats  told  me  in  March  that  the  Philippines'  unilateral  action  in  taking  its   dispute   with   China   to   the   United   Nations   has   "taken   all   the   breath   out   of   the   COC   process."   I   have   been   arguing   for   several   years   that   ASEAN   has   made   a   strategic   mistake   in   trying  to  negotiate  a  COC  with  China.  It  should  negotiate  a  COC  for  Southeast  Asia's   maritime   domain   among   its   members.   This   would   govern   how   ASEAN   members   should   behave   in   light   of   territorial   disputes   or   overlapping   claims   among   themselves.   Once   they   agree,   ASEAN   should   open   the   COC   for   Southeast   Asia's   Maritime   Domain   for   accession   by   all   their   dialogue   partners   much   like   the   Treaty   of   Amity  and  Cooperation  and  Southeast  Asia  Nuclear  Weapons  Free  Zone.  This  would   put  pressure  on  China  to  conform  or  remain  isolated.   2.  Why  is  China  stalling?   ANSWER:   China   can   afford   to   play   for   time   because   there   are   countries   in   ASEAN   who  will  cave  in  and  meet  Chinese  demands  rather  than  risk  provoking  tensions  in   relations.   The   longer   China   waits   the   more   these   "nervous   nellies"   will   push   for   ASEAN  to  reach  an  accommodation.  A  binding  code  of  conduct  would  restrict  China's   actions.     3.  China  has  sent  feelers  to  some  ASEAN  member  countries  that  it  may  sit  down  with  

2 ASEAN   for   the   COC   negotiations   if   the   Philippines   is   excluded   or   if   the   Philippines   drops  the  arbitration  case  it  raised  before  UNCLOS.  ASEAN  diplomats  told  China  this   is  not  possible.  Knowing  it  was  a  futile  attempt,  why  do  you  think  China  even  tried   this?   ANSWER:   ASEAN   diplomats   have   told   me   that   China   is   indeed   pressuring   them   to   lobby   the   Philippines   to   drop   its   legal   action   as   a   quid   pro   quo   for   restarting   talks   on   the  COC.  China's  attempt  to  exclude  the  Philippines  will  be  no  more  successful  than   President  Bush's  attempt  to  hold  the  2nd  ASEAN-­‐US  Leadership  meeting  at  Crawford   Ranch  in  Texas  without  Myanmar.  No  meeting  was  held.  China  has  been  put  on  the   back   foot   by   the   Philippines's   actions   because   of   the   implications   of   the   Arbitral   Tribunal   taking   up   the   case.   Trying   to   isolate   the   Philippines   appears   like   a   ploy   to   test  ASEAN  unity.     It   is   notable   that   Indonesia's   foreign   minister,   Marty   Natalegawa,   who   was   originally   quoted   by   AFP   as   saying   China   requested   a   meeting   with   ASEAN   on   the   COC,   has   been  rather  critical  of  China  subsequently.    Other  sources  have  told  me  they  cannot   get   confirmation   of   the   Chinese   approach   to   discuss   the   COC   specifically.   They   say   China   requested   a   meeting   to   discuss   commemorative   activities   to   mark   the   tenth   anniversary  of  the  strategic  partnership.     Suggested   citation:   Carlyle   A.   Thayer,   “ASEAN’s   Calls   for   China   to   Craft   a   Code   of   Conduct   for   the   South   China   Sea,”   Thayer   Consultancy   Background   Brief,   April   25,   2013.   Thayer  Consultancy  Background  Briefs  are  archived  at