MANILA – The participants in the China-ASEAN summit held on Nov. 13 decided on starting consultations on a “code of conduct” in dealing with South China Sea issues, so moves to work for a peaceful solution will continue. However, it is still uncertain whether such a code of conduct will be effective, and this will depend on the discussions going forward. Although President Donald Trump has shown enthusiasm to serve as a “mediator,” the Southeast Asian nations actually want to avoid an all-out confrontation with a China that wields growing clout in the region, despite the fact that they welcome the U.S.’s involvement.
China and the ASEAN states signed a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC) in 2002. However, the DoC is non-binding and China has continued building artificial islands in the South China Sea, so ASEAN has been making efforts to conclude a legally-binding code of conduct.
Meanwhile, Trump stated in his meeting with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang on Nov. 12: “If I could help mediate or arbitrate [the dispute], please let me know.”
However, the concerned nations are wary of Trump’s proposal. Tran said at the joint news conference held after their summit meeting: “Our policy is to seek a solution through peaceful negotiations based on international law,” stressing only the basic principle.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano hailed Trump’s “kind and generous proposal” before reporters on Nov. 12 but warned that “this is not an issue for one country to decide immediately.”
During the previous Aquino administration, the Philippines filed a case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, Netherlands, complaining that China’s claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea violated the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, the current Duterte administration, which adopts a conciliatory approach toward China, shelved the court’s ruling against China in July 2016 in exchange for receiving economic aid.
Duterte said on Nov. 12 that “it’s better not to touch on” the South China Sea issue, indicating his hesitation to mention the issue. He also did not bring up this topic at his meeting with Trump on Nov. 13. It remains uncertain how the U.S. will be involved in the South China Sea issue as “mediator.”