United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on the ten member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) early this month to stand up to China in their territorial disputes in the South China Sea and they can bank on US support.
ASEAN response was expectedly cool to the US call. “We don’t want to get trapped by this rivalry,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said. The ASEAN member states issued a joint statement that progress was being made in negotiations to craft a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea that is consistent with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and President Xi Jinping of China envisioned the drawing of such a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea when they presided as co-chairmen of the ASEAN-China Summit two years ago in Beijing.
They agreed on 2021 as the target year for the completion of talks and signing of a China-ASEAN Code of Conduct. President Duterte told the 33rd ASEAN Summit in November, 2018, that efforts were underway for the early conclusion of an agreement.
The ASEAN, even the most militant ones, realize that their various disputes over islands and other territories in the South China Sea cannot be settled by military means. Cooperation among them continues not only in drawing up a Code of Conduct but also in economic initiatives, such as the Philippines’ oil and gas joint venture with China, with a 60-40 return on investments, in favor of the Philippines.
ASEAN became the biggest trading partner of China in the first quarter of 2020. Recovering fastest among the world’s nations from the COVID-19 pandemic, China managed to achieve a 3.2 percent growth in its economy in the first quarter of 2020, when the US, Europe, and other nations suffered contractions.
In the face of so many conflicting claims in the South China Sea, it is evident that negotiations are the only way to settle differences and the Code of Conduct is a key part of the efforts to reach agreement and cooperation in the area.
The Philippines has a key role to play in these efforts. “As Country Coodinator of ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations until 2021, we are committed to the conclusion of an effective Code of Conduct,” President Duterte said when he and President Xi Jinping jointly presided over the start of negotiations in 2018.
The target for completion and signing of that agreement is 2021 – next year – and it should not be disrupted by any new calls for confrontation in the South China Sea.