Small diplomatic success will not change Beijing’s course on South China Sea

The Chinese man-made island built on the Fiery Cross reefs in South China Sea, with competing claims of territory by ASEAN member countries including Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. (Source: Google Map) 

ASEAN countries and China have taken a step closer to the promised Code of Conduct governing the South China Sea. However, it has to be noted that as always Beijing has not given up its claims while the diplomats are taking their sweet time.

Beijing’s moves on the contentious South China Sea issue in this past month stirred another diplomatic upset among its counterparts.

The International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL) - an NGO with consultative status before the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC) - raised concerns about Chinese actions which can be considered as provocative escalations of tension.

It also requests related parties to respect and adhere to the Declaration of Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (DOC) and calls for the early establishment and implementation of the Code of Conduct (COC) - the international legally binding instrument that China and its ASEAN counterparts have longed for. The statement is as follows:

IADL is aware of recent provocative escalations of tensions in the South China Sea which negatively affects the maritime security and safety in the region. These escalations which should be of great concern of the international community include: (i) in April 2019 there was an increased presence of Chinese ships around Thi Tu island – a disputed area with the Philippines in April 2019; (ii) In May 2019 China’s coastguard vessels were patrolling around the Luconia Shoals, which lies within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of Malaysia.

Most notably, since the beginning of July 2019, China let oil survey vessel Haiyang Dizhi 8 and its escorts operate illegally in the EEZ and continental shelf of Vietnam in the South China Sea. This act has clearly violated the sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction of Vietnam as stated in UNCLOS 1982.

IADL requests that China promptly stop violating the sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction of Vietnam, stop carrying out activities that further complicate the situation and increase tension between related parties and begin to concentrate on building mutual trust to maintain the security, peace and stability in the South China Sea in particular and in the region in general.

IADL requests related parties to respect and adhere to the Declaration of Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (DOC) as well as early establish and implement [sic] the Code of Conduct (COC), which is legally binding and based on international laws.  (read the full statement)

The statement reflected the unilateral Chinese behaviour. Stakeholders had been expecting that diplomacy would resolve this maritime conflict but history has proved that it is too weak to halt Beijing.

Messy situation as the clock is ticking for ASEAN

ASEAN member countries are the direct stakeholders in this sea. Beside the geopolitical conflict over territory between China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia, the sea is also home to enormous quantities of seafood and crude oil. 30 percent of global trade also makes its way through this area.

For 2 decades, China and the ASEAN countries have been working on a CoC after a mutual agreement that the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of Sea (UNCLOS) guaranteeing the freedom of navigation and flights will be respected.

The ASEAN countries and China signed the DoC in 2002. However, the non-legally binding declaration failed to resolve the conflict and Beijing’s territorial claims due to its reference to the mythical Nine-Dash Line.

With Thailand in the chair, ASEAN is determined to finish the 1st draft of the CoC (out of 3) within Thailand’s term. The latest move was the conclusion of the first reading of the Single CoC Draft Negotiating Text - the framework of negotiations on the CoC. This was ahead of the deadline set at the end of the year.

The concluded first reading of the text was seen as progress as the whole process was supposed to be finished within 3 years. However, we must remember that small achievements have failed to keep the Chinese at bay.

As the diplomatic process took time, China claimed an area of the sea as well as shoals and reefs. It even went to the extent of building a man-made island in the sea which was later fortified. It also rejected a 2016 international tribunal ruling about its claims.

Chinese naval militarization has surged this year. Beijing deployed aircraft-carrier groups combined with submarines. China is also engaging in submarine weapons testing (the JL-3SLBM missile) and the construction of Type 096 nuclear ballistic missile submarines.

The PLA’s naval presence has increased from 20,000 to 100,000 men in order to protect both national interests in the South China Sea and another grand policy, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s broader national defence budget has also risen to USD 175 billion, a third of the US defence budget of USD 700 billion (in comparison, the gap once stood at 20-fold).

Other factors also accounted for the tension in the sea. On August 7, the USS Ronald Reagan, one of the biggest and most modern US warships, made a port call at Manila. The act stirred up tension as Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte called for US intervention in the sea during an interview.

The Malacanang later declared that the interview was not to be taken seriously. However, Duterte is to visit Chinese President Xi Jinping on August 28 in Beijing to talk about the conflict. Duterte also said that he will press China to end tensions with other countries in the dispute.

Duterte’s remarks cast doubt on a change of negotiation priorities to government-to-government talks instead of a dialogue between China and ASEAN. It is suspected that the Chinese favour the former. The strength of ASEAN will probably be tested by this move.

The CoC would surely be a major diplomatic solution to this dispute. As ASEAN has been working hard for it, they should not let negotiations be swayed by the Chinese moves or its own ASEAN members. They have to keep up their guard and keep watching.

But as the clock is ticking, what will be left for others when the CoC is finished?



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