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ASEAN-China Agree to Complete South China Sea Framework
Aug 20, 2016

China and a grouping of Southeast Asian nations aim to finish by the middle of next year a framework for a code of conduct to ease tension in the disputed South China Sea.

Since 2010, China and the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been discussing a set of rules aimed at avoiding conflict among rival claimants in the busy waterway.

  • Last month, an arbitration court in the Hague ruled that China had no historic title over the South China Sea and had breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights there. The decision infuriated China, which dismissed the court’s authority. But it has been keen to get diplomacy back on track since.
  • The two sides agreed to get the framework for the code of conduct done by mid-2017, and also approved guidelines for a China-ASEAN hotline for use during maritime emergencies.
  • They also agreed that a pact on unplanned maritime encounters, signed in 2014 by countries in the region, applied to the South China Sea.
  • Documents on the hotline and unplanned encounters would be presented for final approval to leaders in Laos next month at a meeting between China and ASEAN members.
  • Both sides reached broad consensus on pushing forward the negotiations on a code of conduct for the South China Sea. They agreed to raise the frequency of the negotiations in a situation without interference, and seek to finish a draft framework of the code of conduct by the middle of next year.
  • This was the third meeting on the code this year.It shows that as the situation in the South China Sea is getting more and more complicated, especially with the interference of external forces.
  • China has blamed the US and its allies in the region, such as Japan and Australia, for stoking tension in the South China Sea.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of trade moves annually. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims in the sea, believed to be rich in energy deposits.

Importance of South China Sea


On 12 July 2016, the five-person Tribunal found in favour of the Philippines in the South China Sea Arbitration. China had not participated in the arbitration process and dismissed the outcome, reiterating its long-held position that the Tribunal had no jurisdiction over the case. They levelled many accusations against the Tribunal and their decision, finding it ‘null and void’.

  • The South China Sea has steadily increased its strategic importance over several years. In 2010, China overtook the US as the world’s largest energy consumer. According to the US Energy Information Agency, China became that same year the second-largest importer and consumer of oil. It furthered its national and strategic interests by developing and increasing capabilities that protect that region’s sea lines of communication.
  • Since 2011, the Philippines began referring to a section of the South China Sea as the West Philippine Sea. The US soon followed suit, geographically re-naming an area which covers many disputed isles and reefs. The following year saw incidents intensify between China and Philippines.
  • In January 2013, the Philippines sought arbitration against China under Annex VII of UNCLOS. They also sought to secure access to traditional fishing rights at the Scarborough Shoal, located north of the Spratly Islands, essentially to seek “a ruling on the source of the Parties’ rights and obligations in the South China Sea and the effect of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea”.

China shows a willingness to engage in diplomacy and multilateral approaches on this issue. The 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is one example. While that was a non-binding agreement, it showed regionalism and diplomacy play a significant role in reducing tensions in the region.


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