Experts doubt ASEAN, China will reach Code of Conduct on South China Sea during summit

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, November 10) — A binding Code of Conduct on the South China Sea looks a long way off for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China, experts said.

"There is no chance that a code of conduct is reached at this ASEAN Summit," said Gregory Poling, Director of Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. "Those negotiations, if they begin — and they haven't — would still take years," he told CNN Philippines' Global Newsroom.

The low expectation comes amid what Poling called a "significant disappointment" with the Philippines' new approach to China.

The impression was shared by military analyst and historian Jose Custodio, who felt the government was "blundering along" and "feeling its way" through the maritime row.

"If the past year is an indicator, all of the confusing statements coming from the administration when it comes to China made us suspect that there was no coherent guiding policy regarding this shift to China," Custodio told CNN Philippines' On the Record.

"It's like we're happy with the crumbs, while they get the goodies," he added.

Their comments come ahead of the 31st ASEAN Summit and Related Meetings next week, where the 10 member countries and China are expected to discuss negotiations for the code of conduct. The code is intended to direct tense interactions in the disputed area. Five of the seven claimants to all or part of the South China Sea are members of ASEAN — Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

An agenda of the ASEAN leaders' meeting has not been released. However, in a speech in September, Foreign Affairs Secretary Cayetano said they looked forward to "successful negotiations" on the Code of Conduct.

"The Philippines, as ASEAN Chairman this year, looks forward to successful negotiations on the long-overdue code of conduct in West Philippine Sea/South China Sea," Cayetano had said.

This was bolstered by President Rodrigo Duterte's remarks to reporters on Thursday during the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in Da Nang.

"I'm not criticizing China. I'm just telling them that it is high time for us to have that Code of Conduct of the sea," Duterte said.

But Poling noted that the one-page framework of agreement for the code, which was finalized in August, took a year to negotiate, and that China will not make this priority.

"Within 24 hours of releasing the framework, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China has no intention of beginning negotiations immediately. They'll do it when they feel like it," said Poling.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in August that China set a precondition to discussing the code of conduct.

"When the situation in the South China Sea is generally stable, and if there is no major disruption from outside parties — with that as the precondition — then we will consider during the November leaders' meeting... [announcing] the official start of the COC consultation," said Wang, referring to the Code of Conduct.

Poling said it's "highly doubtful" that the South China Sea issue and the Code of Conduct will be raised strongly in the ASEAN meetings.

Duterte's administration has taken a softer stance against China, which has refused to recognize an international arbitral tribunal ruling in 2016 favoring the Philippines' claim over part of the South China Sea and islands within its exclusive economic zone.

Contrary to the analysts' opinions' Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson Major General Restituto Padilla maintains that there is a "clear guiding policy" and the Philippines is "on the right track."

Without mentioning the United States, Padilla said that the administration shifted its stance because it "cannot depend on anyone else but ourselves." While the US and the Philippines are bound by a Mutual Defense Treaty in which the US pledges to support the Philippines in the event of conflict, some are unconvinced that the western power will follow through.

"If there's anything that erupts in the South China Sea, are we assured of an immediate reaction on the part of others who have voiced their commitment to assist us? In his perception, and according to the guidance that we have taken, we cannot count on that," Padilla told On the Record.

Concerns over the South China Sea have arisen once again after the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, a Washington-based think tank, reported that land reclamation by Beijing in contested areas of the South China Sea continued despite the government's assurance otherwise.

Former Philippine Ambassador to ASEAN Wilfrido Villacorta also weighed in, saying that while the government probably had guidelines for the issue, the rules of engagement needed to be defined.

"What happens if China breaks its word about freedom of navigation? What is the Coast Guard supposed to do? What is the military, the Navy supposed to do?" said Villacorta.

He noted that Vietnam, another claimant in the South China Sea dispute, has a hotline to China, concerning the matter.

"[Vietnam and China] have hotlines between the defense ministers of the two countries, between the foreign ministers, and between their state councils. We don't have that," he added.

However, he supported the administration's "independent foreign policy" of a shift towards China, and expressed optimism on the Summit's outcome.

"I'm very optimistic about the outcome of the ASEAN Summit as well as the East Asian Summit. I have trust in the big powers this time, that they will all act responsibly," he said.

Poling, however, thinks differently — even saying that discussions between ASEAN and China were "just not working." A shift in strategy to get the longstanding issue resolved is needed.

"What I expect is that the disappointments that [are] gonna 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," said Poling.

ASEAN's rule of non-interference and consensus among its 10 members also hindered the implementation of change, Custodio said. "It's really up to the states themselves."