China set for smooth sailing on S. China Sea
Watered-down Asean framework eases pressure on China and its claim of islands
MANILA: South-east Asian ministers meeting this week are set to avoid tackling the subject of Beijing's arming and building of man-made South China Sea islands, preparing to endorse a framework for a code of conduct that is neither binding nor enforceable.
Asean has omitted references to China's most controversial activities in its joint communique, a draft showed.
A leaked blueprint for establishing an Asean-China code of maritime conduct also does not call for it to be legally binding or seek adherence to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The two drafts highlight China's growing regional clout at a time of uncertainty over whether the new US administration will try to check Beijing's assertiveness in the disputed waters.
The South China Sea chapter in the latest draft communique, a negotiated text subject to changes, is a watered-down version of one issued last year.
In that text, Asean "emphasised the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in all activities", but the latest text calls for avoidance of "unilateral actions in disputed features" instead.
The role of the Philippines as this year's chair of Asean has helped China keep a lid on discord - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has put aside disputes in exchange for Chinese funding pledges of US$24 billion (S$32.6 billion).
Asean ties with the US under President Donald Trump have been in flux, as questions linger over Washington's commitment to maritime security and trade in Asia, diminishing the grouping's bargaining power with Beijing.
A legally binding code of conduct has been a goal for Asean's claimant members - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - since a 2002 pact to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight and leave rocks and reefs uninhabited.
That pact has been largely ignored, particularly by China, which reclaimed seven reefs and can now deploy combat planes on three, besides defence systems already in place.
China's Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that China is willing to work with Asean to maintain the "hard won" stability in the South China Sea and steadily push forward with talks on the code of conduct.
Analysts and some Asean diplomats worry that China's sudden support for negotiating a code of conduct is a ploy to buy time to further boost its military capability.
"We could have done more to push China to agree to a much stronger document..." said one Asean diplomat.
The agreed two-page framework is broad and leaves wide scope for disagreement, urging a commitment to the "purposes and principles" of UNCLOS, for example, rather than adherence.
It papers over the differences between Asean nations and China, said Mr Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security.
"Optimists will see this non-binding agreement as a small step forward, allowing habits of cooperation to develop, despite differences," he said.
"Pessimists will see this as a gambit favourable to a China determined to make the majority of the South China Sea its domestic lake." - REUTERS