Advance COC talks through building regional trust
US National Security Advisor John Bolton warned China on Tuesday that Washington would “oppose any agreements between China and other claimants to the South China Sea that limit free passage to international shipping, and that American naval vessels would continue to sail through those waters,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
Bolton’s assertion came right after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that China hopes to finish negotiations over the South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) within three years so as to keep enduring peace in the region. Both are attending the ASEAN Summit in Singapore right now.
With the joint efforts of China and relevant ASEAN countries, tensions in the South China Sea have cooled down. While Western analysts hold a skeptical view of the agreement between China and ASEAN nations to start negotiations on the COC, talks on the COC have indeed been pushed forward in a steadfast pace.
It is worth noting that, due to the US’ continuous utterance and meddling, the COC talks may be a twisted and complicated process. But it is also a process during which China and ASEAN can build up trust. The COC negotiations indicate that regional countries can solve their own problems, albeit in the face of external interferences. The upcoming three years are a time when China and ASEAN will sort out how to mitigate interference by external factors, especially the US.
For a long time, the US has been trying to woo Southeast Asian nations which have territorial disputes with China in South China Sea waters, including the Philippines and Vietnam. Washington’s approach is an attempt to balance China’s rise and counter the so-called regional hegemony of China. The often-touted Indo-Pacific strategy by the US is in essence a measure to contain China by building a network of allies and partners.
The US will continue to expand its presence in the Indo-Pacific region. It is budgeting to spend $717 billion on defense in 2019, its highest spending since 2011, which will increase the size and might of the US military partly in response to China’s activities in the South China Sea. China should keep alert of any troubles US interference in the area may bring to the COC talks.
To ensure the construct of a wellfunctioning security framework, China is keenly pushing forward economic and trade cooperation with ASEAN countries. China is working with ASEAN to upgrade the bilateral Free Trade Agreement signed in 2004, and such efforts will facilitate the COC talks in return. China and the Philippines are seeking joint oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, which can create a positive foundation for the two to expand cooperation and solve territorial disputes.