Extension of South China Sea Code of Conduct deadline sought as pandemic disrupts ASEAN meetings

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 14) — “Forget about the deadline.”

This was the suggestion of Vietnamese official Nguyen Vu Tung on the negotiations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

The regional bloc earlier adopted the three-year timeline proposed by China, eyeing 2022 for the completion of the Code of Conduct which will determine the only allowable actions parties can take in the contested waters.

Vietnam is this year’s ASEAN chair while the Philippines is the country coordinator for the ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations.

Nguyen, President of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam and ambassador-designate to South Korea, said Tuesday that ASEAN operations have been taking a hit from the COVID-19 pandemic, disrupting its meetings and activities.

ASEAN states recently conducted their first online summit, but Nguyen said it would be more prudent to wait until face-to-face discussions can be held for a “more substantive, more effective, and more law-enforcing” Code of Conduct.

Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia regional specialist and Emeritus Professor at The University of New South Wales, said ASEAN states and China are still on a stalemate on the geographic scope of the code, among other contentious issues.

“That is unclear from the very beginning,” he said during a virtual conference organized by Stratbase ADR Institute, adding that he is “not very optimistic” a Code of Conduct can be inked by 2022.

But for former Japanese Ambassador to the Philippines Kazuhide Ishikawa, the long-delayed code can actually be concluded overnight, if only ASEAN and China would just agree to “easily” convert the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea by adding some legally-binding provisions.

“The negotiation has been taking so much time and no prospects of a conclusion,” he said in a recorded video message.

Critics have pointed out little progress in the talks for a Code of Conduct due to resistance from China.

In September 2019, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. announced that a draft has been reached as Beijing "softened its insistence on controversial provisions." But there was actually "very little 'agreed' upon," with salient provisions left unresolved, said Gregory Poling, director of Washington-based think tank Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, in an earlier interview with CNN Philippines.

In his speech at the ASEAN Summit in June, President Rodrigo Duterte said they are facing "real constraints in dealing with the deliverables" amid the coronavirus crisis, but stressed that negotiations for a Code of Conduct are underway.

"We remain committed to work closely with the member states and China towards the early conclusion of an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea," Duterte said.