Thursday, 1 September 2011

China, Philippines positive on defusing South China Sea tensions

China and the Philippines are closer to settling a long-running dispute over their maritime boundary, after a state visit by Philippine President Beningno Aquino to Beijing which began on 31st August. During the visit Aquino, who this summer has been bullish towards China, struck a conciliatory note. Calling for greater economic links between the two states, he announced that “the Philippines is indeed open for business”.

The Philippine President is accompanied by 300 business leaders in an attempt to boost bilateral economic relations, anticipating an increase to $60 billion in five years, up from $27.7 billion in 2010. 

However the main focus of the visit is on the contested border in the South China Sea, where the Philippines – like many other Southeast Asian states – are at loggerheads with Beijing over maritime boundaries and the ownership of the isolated Spratly Islands. Disputes over the islands, or rather the extensive oil and gas reserves believed to lie beneath them, are a potential flashpoint for conflict.

Aquino and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao released a joint statement on 1st September, in which they “agreed not to let the maritime disputes affect the broader picture of friendship and cooperation” and “reiterated their commitment to addressing the disputes through peaceful dialogue”. Although this is standard diplomatic boilerplate, Aquino did reveal some signs of progress the previous evening. 

Speaking to reporters after meeting Hu, Aquino revealed that China is now calling for a legally binding code of conduct for all nations operating in the South China Sea. This would go beyond the non-binding 'guidelines' which regional states had agreed on at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in July. Aquino was buoyed by the news, calling the Chinese proposal “very significant”. Hu also contributed to the positive atmosphere, calling for the South China Sea to develop into “a sea of friendship, peace and cooperation”. 

A legally binding code of conduct would be difficult to draw up, if the wrangling over the July guidelines is any guide. Disagreements between the ASEAN nations ensured that the proposals were ambiguous and vague. Other regional states will be watching carefully to see if China's proposed code of conduct would favour Beijing or be designed to exclude the US, which has backed the smaller states, from regional affairs. Given China's assertive stance in the South China Sea, it is unlikely to make any concessions. 

In any case, a code of conduct would be extremely difficult to enforce. Most regional states have strayed from the spirit if not the letter of the 'Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea', agreed in 2002. It would be surprising if a legally binding code of conduct would seem sacrosanct when other legal tools, such as international arbitration, have yet to prevent regional disputes and confrontations.

Sources: AFP, Reuters, Bloomberg, Xinhua

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