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Japan, U.S. Must Be Involved in Drafting South China Sea Code of Conduct





The efforts of China and members of ASEAN to draw up a “code of conduct” for the South China Sea are drawing increasing attention.


The need for such guidelines to be adopted as soon as possible was reiterated at the mid-November ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), which included officials from Japan, the United States, China, and South Korea, all of which need to participate in this effort.


We should welcome the introduction of international rules for safe navigation in this area that contains maritime routes vital to Japan and other nations. The issue is whether China plans to manipulate such a code for its own advantage.




Doubts About China’s True Intentions


U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said that he doubts China’s “sincerity to negotiate a meaningful code of conduct that reinforces international law.”


China’s statements are contradicted by its actions of constructing military facilities one after another on reclaimed shoals in the South China Sea, including a 3,000-meter-long aircraft runway. Moreover, during June and July of this year, China test-fired six anti-ship ballistic missiles there. Such attempts to alter the status quo through displays of military power are not indicative of a willingness to create rules applicable to all parties.


Efforts by China and ASEAN to create rules for interaction in the South China Sea began when territorial clashes regarding the Spratly (Nansha) Islands and other contested features intensified during the 1990s.


Since Beijing opposed any legally binding rules, the two sides opted for a political document, and in 2002 adopted the non-binding Declaration of the Conduct (DoC) of Parties in the South China Sea. It called for trust-building and refraining from the use of force.



The proposed code of conduct would give this declaration enforcement teeth.


At first, Beijing dragged its feet on the negotiations. But it has adopted a notably more positive stance of late — for example, by explicitly calling for the code to be adopted by 2021.


Efforts Colored by China’s Strongarm Tactics


ASEAN has been holding a series of summit and ministerial level meetings among its own members, as well as with the addition of Japan, the United States, China, South Korea, among others.


The situation in the South China Sea is an important security issue and so naturally Japan, the United States, and nations in the surrounding region have been critical of China’s militarization of key parts. The chairmen’s declarations at these high-level meetings have noted such concerns, although scrupulously avoided mention of China by name. At the same time, they do present much needed progress reports.



As a result, the declarations stress the positive. Although they speak of rising tensions in the South China Sea, they also say that vigorous efforts are continuing to relax them.


Beijing’s rise in terms of economic and military power has highlighted the chasm in comparative strength between China and ASEAN. In exchange for hefty economic assistance, China has won the favor of Cambodia and several other countries. So it has not proved all that difficult for Beijing to take the initiative vis-à-vis ASEAN.



A Code of Conduct for a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’


China apparently wants the proposed code of conduct to include the stipulation that prior approval from China and neighboring countries in the region will be required before military exercises are undertaken by any third party in the South China Sea. The Chinese intent is obviously to keep the U.S. military and other unwanted parties out of the region.



In July 2016, in response to a lawsuit from the Philippines, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea’s Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague issued a ruling that totally rejected as totally lacking legal foundation China’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea, exemplified by its so-called “nine-dash line.”


The current contentious situation was created by Beijing’s ignoring international rules. So, if new international rules are created in a code of conduct, can’t we expect China to flout them as well?


Conditions surrounding the South China Sea have changed dramatically since the 1990s. At present, China and some of its ASEAN neighbors are not actively pursuing their territorial disputes. Instead, using all of its might, China is busy gobbling up the entire South China Sea.


Yet, according to international law, the vital maritime routes in the South China Sea, through which international trade flows, are for the most part located within international waters.


The mission of creating rules to govern behavior in the area cannot be entrusted to Beijing and the ASEAN countries alone. Shouldn’t Tokyo and Washington D.C. also participate as advocates of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region.”



(Click here to read this article in Japanese.)



By Tsugumasa Uchihata, Sankei Shimbun editorial writer


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