But crit­ics say a fi­nal Asean-Beijing agree­ment on a code of con­duct on the South China Sea is not likely any­time soon.


China’s agree­ment to be­gin dis­cus­sions with the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions (Asean) on the fine print of a code of con­duct frame­work for the dis­puted South China Sea will be a “sta­bi­lizer” for the re­gion, Chi­nese Premier Li Ke­qiang said on Mon­day.

“China’s great­est hope is for peace and sta­bil­ity in the South China Sea,” Li told Asean lead­ers in Manila.

South­east Asia and China for­eign min­is­ters in Au­gust adopted a ne­go­ti­at­ing frame­work for a code of con­duct in the South China Sea, a move they hailed as progress but seen by crit­ics as a tac­tic to buy China time to con­sol- idate its mar­itime power.

Li, ad­dress­ing Asean lead­ers dur­ing a sum­mit in Manila, said there was a con­sen­sus on mov­ing for­ward and to try to peace­fully re­solve the thorny is­sue.

“We hope the talks on the code of con­duct will bol­ster mu­tual un­der­stand­ing and trust. We will strive un­der the agree­ment to reach a con­sen- sus on achiev­ing early im­ple­men­ta­tion of the code of con­duct,” Li said, ac­cord­ing to a tran­script of his speech re­leased by China’s for­eign min­istry on Tues­day.

Li didn’t give a time frame, but said he hoped this move would be a “sta­bi­lizer” for the re­gion.

Philip­pine pres­i­den­tial spokesper- son Harry Roque said in a state­ment on Mon­day that Asean and China, at a sum­mit presided over by Pres­i­dent Duterte, had agreed to open ne­go­ti­a­tions on the code of con­duct.

“One of the out­comes of the meet­ings is to com­mence the ne­go­ti­a­tions on a sub­stan­tive and ef­fec­tive code of con­duct in the South China

Sea af­ter con­clud­ing the frame­work agree­ment on the code of con­duct,” Roque said.

He said Mr. Duterte did not re­fer to the South China Sea dis­putes at the Asean lead­ers’ meet­ing with US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump on Mon­day, but Malaysian Prime Min­is­ter Na­jib Razak men­tioned it in the bloc’s com­mon state­ment dur­ing the sit­down with the US leader.

Trump last week of­fered to me­di­ate the mar­itime dis­putes. Asean was study­ing whether to ac­cept the of­fer.

He also said Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping as­sured Pres­i­dent Duterte on Satur­day that China was “not ready to go to war with any­one” over the South China Sea.

Mr. Duterte’s al­lies on Tues­day hailed the de­ci­sion of Asean and China to be­gin talks on the code of con­duct, call­ing it “one of the most sig­nif­i­cant achieve­ments” of this year’s Asean Sum­mit.

Only an in­cre­men­tal move

“The fact that China agreed to sit down with Asean to draft the code of con­duct for the South China Sea can al­ready be con­sid­ered a mile­stone for peace and de­vel­op­ment in the re­gion,” said East­ern Sa­mar Rep. Ben Evar­done.

Crit­ics say the agree­ment to talk on the de­tails of the code of con­duct is only an in­cre­men­tal move, with a fi­nal agree­ment not likely any­time soon.

Gre­gory Pol­ing, di­rec­tor of Asia Mar­itime Trans­parency Ini­tia­tive, be­lieves it will take China and Asean years to con­clude a code of con­duct.

“Those ne­go­ti­a­tions, if they be­gin—and they haven’t—would still take years,” Pol­ing told re­porters on the side­lines of the Strat­base ADR In­sti­tute sum­mit in Makati City on Nov. 8.

Can’t be taken for granted

“What I ex­pect is that the dis­ap­point­ments that [are] go­ing to be ob­vi­ous af­ter this year might fi­nally kick Asean states into gear, make them re­al­ize that they need to think of a dif­fer­ent venue to get this done,” he said.

De­spite a pe­riod of rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity in the South China Sea, some coun­tries at the sum­mit said this shouldn’t be taken for granted.

The frame­work seeks to ad­vance a 2002 Dec­la­ra­tion of Con­duct of Par­ties in the South China Sea, which has mostly been ig­nored by claimant states, par­tic­u­larly China.

China built seven ar­ti­fi­cial is­lands in dis­puted wa­ters, three of which are equipped with run­ways, sur­face-to-air mis­siles and radars.

All par­ties say the frame­work is only an out­line for how the code will be es­tab­lished but crit­ics say the fail­ure to out­line as an ini­tial ob­jec­tive the need to make the code legally bind­ing and en­force­able, or have a dis­pute res­o­lu­tion mech­a­nism, raises doubts about how ef­fec­tive the pact will be.

Sign­ing China up to a legally bind­ing and en­force­able code for the strate­gic wa­ter­way has long been a goal for claimant mem­bers of Asean, some of which have sparred for years over what they see as China’s dis­re­gard for their sov­er­eign rights and its block­ing of fish­er­men and en­ergy ex­plo­ration ef­forts.

Malaysia, Tai­wan, Brunei, Viet­nam and the Philip­pines all claim some or all of the South China Sea and its myr­iad shoals, reefs and is­lands.


Li Ke­qiang

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