"Americans are taking advantage of the situation."
Objectively, the ASEAN Code of Conduct was first broached to the members in the 1992 meeting in Singapore. The issue was to mediate China and Vietnam in a dispute over oil exploration. ASEAN urged the parties “to exercise restraint,” and for the first time sought to apply the principles contained in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia as the basis for establishing a code of international conduct over the South China Sea.”
That historic meeting saw ASEAN becoming pro-active in the settlement of disputes among its members. It was a forward-looking approach without the bloc altering the basic concept of regionalism to strengthen peace and stability. ASEAN opted to invite China, hoping to bring the parties to the negotiating table.
The ASEAN decision to invite China was pivotal to the future of the regional bloc. It seems the founding members anticipated there would be an economic and political reconfiguration in the region after the defeat of the US in Vietnam with a bright prospect for economic growth with the opening of China in 1978. But unlike the European Union, ASEAN is an association of countries mostly situated in the rim of the South China Sea but with different colonial backgrounds. The most contentious issue that hounds the members is the overlapping claims over some of the islands in the SCS.
The proposed Code of Conduct essentially refers to the use of the SCS to promote peace, stability and security in the region. Most important, the goal is to amicably and peacefully settle all conflicting and overlapping claims which pose great danger to derailing progress.
Admittedly the US, China and the countries of ASEAN have their interpretation on the proposed Code of Conduct with regard to the use and/or navigation in the SCS, and on how countries should settle their contentious claim over some of the islands. Each of these players has their respective objective for the CoC, not to mention the underlying interest that goes with their proposal.
Essentially the CoC proposed by the US and China are diametrically opposed. The US proposal takes the negative approach, while China takes the positive approach of a win-win solution. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang already spelled out China’s proposal last November 2019, which is “to actively support the development and financing of ASEAN infrastructure projects and promote connectivity cooperation in areas such as railways, highways, port and harbors, airports, power and communications for building better business and investment environments.” All the members of ASEAN have bilaterally signed China’s BRI. This is an implied endorsement of China’s version of the CoC.
This paradoxical interpretation of the CoC reflects each of the power blocs’ motivation and interest. Interestingly, the proposal laid down by China appears to have the unanimous support of the ASEAN. The commonality of interests between ASEAN and China is apparent.
First, any policy that would jeopardize and impede navigation in the SCS will directly affect them, they being littoral and adjacent to the SCS.
Second, both China and ASEAN will bear the brunt in the event peace and stability are threatened.
Third, it is to the interest of those countries with conflicting claims in the SCS to amicably settle their dispute to bring about progress and prosperity to their people.
Fourth, ASEAN is not amenable to joining any Cold War type alliance when they organized the ASEAN as an economic bloc in 1967.
Fifth, while all countries including China are working for freedom of navigation to assure the free flow of trade and commerce, that does not include the militarization of the waterway.
The US view of CoC for the SCS is totally anachronistic to the objective of the ASEAN which is wholly shared by China, it being a part of the region. Practically the whole of the China Sea shoreline from north to south facing the west is China’s mainland. Rather, the US is determined in militarizing the SCS using as pretext the increasing naval strength of China in the region. But there is no record that China used its naval might to commit aggression or to occupy any territory of an ASEAN member country.
US aggression in the region stands that it used its navy to attack North Vietnam in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1967, and later bombed and invaded Cambodia and Laos. Second, the US has no claim to any of the islands in the SCS to warrant its safeguarding of those islands like establishing military bases in the region. Third, the ratification of a CoC is not necessary to assure freedom of navigation. Freedom of navigation is already defined and spelled out under international law just as the imposition of sanction, blockade and privateering are considered acts of war. Fourth, the regular patrol of the US navy strictly speaking is an abuse of right to freedom navigation. The patrol constitutes acts of provocation.
This explains why China did not include the issue of freedom of navigation in defining its proposal for the CoC because that would expose that they do not understand their law on the sea. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is an example.
The greatest alibi of the US to justify the conversion of the SCS to an American lake is its accusation that China constructed permanent structures on the islands like the building of barracks, airfield, ports, radar communication equipment and even weapons for defensive purposes. For whatever we say, China has every right to build installations it wants over these islands, it being considered their territory. Pompeo is claiming that many of these islands in the SCS have been illegally occupied by China. All this is noise but has no substance. China is part of the SCS and the US is not.
Ironically, the US is taking advantage of the situation because of its dominant position. It invited countries outside of the region to join its sponsored naval exercise. The US is exercising this right as though it owns SCS as its private lake. This explains why the CoC promoted by the US threatens to distort its meaning and is creating confusion for it seems the US is the one giving direction to these foreign participants. Most ludicrous, ASEAN has not authorized a foreign military bloc to patrol their region.
It may be contentious to argue but the truth will bear it that the US and Spain that first delineated a portion of SCS to enclose the Philippines archipelago from the rest of South China Sea. They demarcated the boundary for the Philippine archipelago that exclude those islands close to our land mass which is why others are now claiming the Spratly Group of Islands. The US occupied this country for 50 years, and stayed on after independence in 1946 until the US conceived in 2000 its “pivot to Asia” policy accusing China of allegedly grabbing some of our islands to give its presence justification.
The US should have asserted this when the country was still its colonial dominion so that the Philippines could have requested it to recover its property and not for the US to tell us to fight China to get back what they segregated in the Treaty of Paris in 1898.