China and the ten member states of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) are rushing to create a “code of conduct (COC)” in order to prevent conflicts in the South China Sea. The COC initially aimed to regulate aggressive actions, including China’s construction of military facilities, but Beijing is proposing the COC include removing Japan and the U.S. from the South China Sea. This may prevent Japan from facilitating partnerships with ASEAN in resource development and holding joint military exercises there.
In 2002, China and ASEAN signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea, where they reaffirmed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and other universal international laws and respect for freedom of navigation and overflight in and above the South China Sea. The DOC also emphasized that the “adoption of a COC will further promote regional peace and stability” and stipulated a commitment to its attainment.
The DOC did not include a binding text that would restrict China’s activities. Japan, the U.S. and other nations had expected a COC, which China and ASEAN were to work out, to set binding rules to prevent conflicts.
China and ASEAN agreed in May 2017 to enter negotiations on the creation of a COC. In August 2018, they complied a draft text listing each other’s position at the China-ASEAN foreign ministerial meeting to begin coordination at the working level. On July 31, 2019, they announced the completion of the first stage of COC formulation work at their foreign ministerial meeting.
The Japanese government collected information on the draft and found it disappointing.
According to what the Japanese government has learned, the draft text contains no binding language and does not discuss a specific mechanism on conflict prevention. In addition, China proposed making it mandatory for all parties to ban maritime economic cooperation with companies outside the region and to regulate joint military exercises with countries outside the region.
A source close to the Japanese government pointed out that “China aims to bind ASEAN with rules that serve its own interests and to eliminate and restrict the engagement of third nations in the South China Sea.” At the East Asia Summit held on Nov. 4, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with China in mind, warned that “the [COC] must comply with international law and must not violate the legitimate rights and interests of any of the parties concerned.”
The COC will be created by China and ASEAN. Japan and the U.S. cannot become directly involved in the process. If a COC that caters to the demands of China is created, Japan and the U.S. might not be able to conduct resource development in the South China Sea with ASEAN nations. And if Japan wants to hold a joint military exercise with ASEAN partners, it may require the prior consent of China. How negotiations between China and ASEAN will develop will become critical to Japan. (Abridged)