MANILA – Maritime experts expect a delay in the crafting of the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea (COC) with the continuous threat of the pandemic and the recent activities in the contested waters.
Dr. Nguyen Hung Son, director general at the Institute for the South China Sea of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, said the pandemic severed the negotiation process and delayed it for half a year.
In addition, he said, “things look even gloomier” given the latest activities of claimants in the area.
“Who would want to go to a negotiation while knowing that whatever agreement they will be able to reach in the end is not respected by those on the ground. Therefore, the detachment going on at the negotiation table and what’s going on the ground are going to be important factors,” he said during a virtual talk organized by the United States Embassy in Manila.
Dr. Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, agreed that the target date for conclusion is “off the rails” as even before the pandemic, “parties have not yet really gotten into the meat of discussions.”
In the meantime, Batongbacal urged concerned parties to communicate and find a “common ground with each other on a bilateral basis and based on that, move on to a larger circle.”
He noted that an effective COC depends on the individual objectives of each Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member-state and common interests they wanted to see expressed and protected in the code.
Meanwhile, Batongbacal warned that the continued activities or “negative trend in assertions” in the South China Sea could cause some kind of a backlash once diplomatic activities and the negotiations resume.
“Unless confidence is built up during this period we might see the resumption, starting with a deadlock again on many issues,” he said.
China recently announced that a Chinese district would be established to govern the islands and reefs of Spratlys and a “district government” would be stationed on Fiery Cross Reef.
In February, a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy vessel also pointed a radar gun against a Philippine Navy ship, prompting the government to file a diplomatic protest.
Leaders of the ASEAN and China target to complete the COC by 2021 to provide a set of guidelines to avoid conflict in the South China Sea.
Aside from the Philippines and China, several littoral states have competing claims in the resource-rich waters. (ia/PNA)