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Negotiate code of conduct first before engaging China, says analyst

An international affairs analyst said that Southeast Asian nations should negotiate a code of conduct among themselves first before engaging China to ensure that they have a stronger position. Philstar.com/File Photo

MANILA, Philippines — Southeast Asian nations that have competing claims to the South China Sea should first negotiate a code of conduct among themselves before engaging China to have a stronger position, an international affairs analyst said.

In an interview on ANC, Richard Heydarian said that since China was dragging its foot on the issue of a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea, Southeast Asian nations that have competing claims in the area should push for “ASEAN minilateralism.”

Heydarian explained that in pushing for “minilateralism,” the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei should negotiate a code of conduct among themselves, a process that can be done more quickly. Aside from these southeast Asian countries, Taiwan and China, which claim almost all of the area, also have claims in the South China Sea.

“What we can do is to push for what we have been calling ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) minilateralism,” Heydarian said. After the negotiation of a code of conduct, these nations could then invite or name and shame China into signing the document.

He also lamented the “watered down position” that the Philippines is taking on the issue.

READ: Rody ready to set aside ruling on sea dispute l Yasay: Philippines not ready for bilateral talks

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Heydarian said that as chairman of the ASEAN this year, the Philippines has the prerogative to include in the group’s agenda the issue on the South China Sea and a clear timetable for the negotiation of the framework and guidelines and the finalization of a code of conduct.

“You have certain privileges as chairman of the ASEAN. You have an ASEAN chairman statement later this year where the chairman can say whatever he wants,” Heydarian said.

Heydarian said that countries such as Japan have been prodding the Philippines to take a stronger stance on the issue and not treat the arbitral award as though it were just a piece of paper.

The arbitral award refers to the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) favoring the Philippines in its arbitration case against China on the South China Sea. Aside from being one of the busiest sea lanes in the world, it is also believed to hold a vast reserve of oil and gas estimated to be worth billions of dollars.

China rejected the ruling by the PCA and said that it was just a piece of paper.

READ: The verdict: Philippines wins arbitration case vs China l The long road to legal victory

This administration is more concerned about having some sort of unity within ASEAN to avoid any kind of disagreement, he said. “What’s the purpose of unity if it’s not going to help in terms of peace and stability in the region.”

Heydarian said that as a bloc, the ASEAN is failing to put enough diplomatic pressure on China to make it negotiate a code of conduct, something that he believes will tie the hands of the Chinese. For China to do this, it should see a clear incentive, according to the analyst.

“At the very minimum you have to have a unified ASEAN to put diplomatic pressure on China. And that’s exactly what we’re not getting right now,” Heydarian told ANC. “Is ASEAN beyond photo ops and certain vacuous statements of unity of any relevance to ensure that we properly manage and hopefully resolve the issues in South China Sea.”

Heydarian also said that many people now are questioning the utility of the group and seeing increasing fragmentation within ASEAN itself.

“ASEAN has three pillars of integration, and so far it’s only in the economic aspect that we see movement. In the political-security aspect, not only that we’re not seeing any movement since 2012, we’re seeing increasing fragmentation,” he said.

Despite its shortcomings on several fronts, ASEAN is still taken seriously by China, Heydarian said.

The analyst said that any statement from the group, whether unilaterally by the Philippines or by ASEAN in a joint statement, would have an impact on China’s views of itself as the leader in the region.

“That could translate into diplomatic pressure. That could also affect China’s behavior on the ground,” Heydarian said.

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