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Thayer Consultancy Background Briefing:

ABN # 65 648 097 123


ASEAN-China Code of Conduct
Framework: The Only Game in
Town
Carlyle A. Thayer
April 25, 2017
[client name deleted]
We're writing on the ASEAN Summit in the Philippines this week and we would like
to get your comments on the following points:
Q1. What can we expect on the South China Sea issue? Diplomats are saying they
expect to agree on the framework of a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. How
important is this in the context of reaching agreement on an actual code? Anything
concrete on the code?
ASNSWER: The Code of Conduct (COC) Framework will definitely feature at the 30th
ASEAN and Related meetings this week. The framework is unlikely to be completed at
this time as only two working group meetings have been held. The framework
provides a general structure of the COC with the specifics, including contentious issues
(geographic area of coverage, legally binding), to be determined. The framework is
likely to be completed by mid-year with the actual COC taking up anywhere from six
months to a year to achieve an agreed text.
What can we expect to see at the ASEAN meetings? ASEAN ministers will repeat past
formulations that some members are concerned about recent developments,
ASEAN will reiterate its call for the peaceful settlement of disputes, non-use of force,
self-restraint and adherence to international law including UNCLOS. ASEAN will praise
progress made to date and call for the full implementation of the Declaration on
Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).
Q2. Have President Dutertes recent comments in beefing up presence on Filipino-
held islands and Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzanas trip to Pag-asa (Thitu)
changed anything on Dutertes seemingly soft strategy on this.
ANSWER: Duterte appears to be charting a straight zig-zag course. He has set aside
the Award by the Arbitral Tribunal in order to improve relations with China but has
also reaffirmed support for implementing the Award at some later stage. Likewise, his
off-the-cuff remarks to Filipino workers in Riydah were quickly retracted when China
applied diplomatic pressure (China asked rhetorically, what would happen if other
heads of state when to the Spratlys. And China answered its own question: it
wouldnt contribute to stability). Duterte said he wouldnt go to Pag-asa but might
send his son. This was posturing before the Filipino audience.
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The Department of Defense has shown increasing concern about further Chinese
militarization and consolidation of control in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) after last
years Arbitral Tribunal Award. When news broke that the China Coast Guard (CCG)
had fired at Filipino fishermen China reacted by quickly announcing they would look
into the matter. Usually China blames the other side and lets its CCG act with impunity.
If Duterte has any strategy it is to use the Philippines position as ASEAN Chair to
promote the current momentum to reach a framework COC under ASEAN auspices. It
should be noted that no bilateral discussions between the Philippines and China on
the WPS has started.
Q3. With the Philippines moving much close to China under Duterte, and Philippines
hosting the event, does this change the dynamics of ASEANs approach to China? Will
ASEAN also now be much more accommodating compared to the previous
administration under Aquino?
ANSWER: There are two answers to your question. The Duterte Administration will
continue to be more accommodating than its predecessor and this will reinforce
ASEANs commitment to negotiate a Code of Conduct with China. Recall that bilateral
ties atrophied under Aquino. ASEAN always viewed the Philippines under President
Aquino as something of wild card if not trouble maker. The Philippines did not consult
in advance when it lodged its claim for an Arbitral Tribunal, for example. Aquino made
other proposals that met with silence from his ASEAN counterparts. And China blamed
lack of progress on the Philippines.
Countries like Vietnam let the Philippines take the point (advance position) on the
South China Sea. Now that Duterte is more accommodating to China, Vietnam has had
to pursue two paths simultaneously seek reassurance from China and lobby within
ASEAN not to roll over. If the Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore and arguably Malaysia
formed a quartet within ASEAN previously, Dutertes policies mean that the quartet
has been reduced to a tripartite grouping. Given the strategic slack in Southeast Asia
caused by the Trump Administrations inaction, ASEAN will continue to pursue the
framework COC and then the formal COC. It is the only diplomatic game in town.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, ASEAN-China Code of Conduct Framework: The


Only Game in Town, Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, April 25, 2017. All
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.