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US-China Dialogue Going Nowhere in South China Sea

For the second time in a month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met China’s foreign policy chief Wang Yi amid a flurry of high-level meetings between the two superpowers. 

Earlier this month, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen visited Beijing, where she met top Chinese technocrats. Former US secretary of state and current climate envoy John Kerry is set to visit China this coming week.

The latest Blinken-Wang meeting took place on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign minister meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia. 

The US diplomatic chief characterized the bilateral meeting as “candid and constructive”, with the two sides addressing a host of geopolitical fault lines, most notably in the South China Sea. 

The latest Blinken-Wang meeting was sensitively timed. Last week, the Philippines, along with its key allies, commemorated the 7th anniversary of the arbitral tribunal award at The Hague, which rejected the bulk of China’s expansive claims in adjacent waters as inconsistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). 

Eager to win trust among its Southeast Asian neighbors, China announced the completion of the second reading of the final version of a Code of Conduct (COC) aimed at more effectively managing the maritime spats. But both the US and its regional allies remain skeptical about the direction of the negotiations, which have been dragging on for literally decades. 

The latest high-level meeting between the two superpowers was dominated by exchanges over a host of grievances, beginning with Taiwan. China has been accusing the US of unduly interfering in regional affairs, while the Biden administration has pushed back against China’s intimidation of its Asian partners. 

On July 13, Chinese fighter jets closely monitored a US Navy patrol plane flying through the Taiwan Straits, with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducting massive wargames nearby. 

For its part, China’s commerce ministry renewed its call for the United States to lift “unilateral” sanctions against leading Chinese companies just days after Yellen’s high-profile visit. 

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy holds live fire drills in the South China Sea. Image: Agencies

US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo is reportedly planning her own travel to Beijing to address tit-for-tat tech sanctions between the two superpowers. 

Tensions have been particularly high following a recent report by Microsoft, which implicated Chinese state-linked hackers in secretly accessing email accounts of American government officials.

“[This] is of deep concern to us, and…we will take appropriate action to hold those responsible accountable,” a senior US State Department official said in response to the latest Chinese hacking attacks on key US departments.

The Blinken-Wang meeting came shortly after Manila commemorated the anniversary of the South China Sea UNCLOS ruling, a precedent that is winning renewed international support. 

“As provided for in UNCLOS, the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision is final and legally binding on both parties. We call on the Philippines and China to abide by its terms,” said the United Kingdom Foreign Office in a statement, underscoring its support for the Southeast Asian nation. 

“The UK does not take a position on competing sovereignty claims, but strongly opposes any claims that are not consistent with UNCLOS. Adherence to international law, including UNCLOS, is fundamental to ensuring there continues to be a safe, prosperous and stable South China Sea,” the statement added.

For its part, the French Embassy expressed concern over China’s aggressive maneuvers against Philippine vessels in recent weeks and, accordingly, called on the Asian superpower to abide by “Arbitration award rendered under UNCLOS on the 12th of July 2016,” which rejected Beijing’s nine-dash line claims in adjacent waters. 

The European Union also released a statement emphasizing how the UNCLOS ruling is legally binding and indispensable to resolution of the maritime disputes. 

As the Philippines’ sole treaty ally, the US was also resolute in backing the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling and warned China against “routine harassment” of smaller claimant states in the South China Sea. 

In response, China accused the United States of “ganging up” on it and seeking to force the arbitration case on the Asian superpower. 

“The US ropes in allies to play up the issue each year on the anniversary of the illegal award to gang up against China and to exert pressure, and force China into accepting the award,” the Chinese embassy in Manila said in a spirited statement accusing the US of being the true “mastermind” behind the arbitration.

Sensing growing pressure over the issue, however, China has once again invoked the ongoing negotiations over a regional COC in order to project good will and peaceful intention towards its neighbors.

During the recent ASEAN meeting, China’s top diplomat Wang and Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudim, who hosed this year’s annual ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting, tried to strike a positive tone on the South China Sea disputes by announcing supposed progress on the COC negotiations. 

Former Chinese ambassador to Washington and China’s current Foreign Minister Qin Gang skipped the event due to health reasons

“China supports the formation of a guideline document by all parties to accelerate the COC [code of conduct] and is willing to continue to play a constructive role in the early conclusion of the COC.” Wang said, after China and ASEAN jointly announced that both sides have reviewed yet another draft of the pact under negotiation. 

There is, however, deep skepticism among many observers. As early as the 1990s, ASEAN states proposed a legally binding COC in order to prevent the escalation of South China Sea disputes, especially after Beijing seized the Manila-claimed Mischief Reef shortly after departure of American bases near the area. 

A satellite image from work on an 3.1-kilometer runway at Mischief Reef in the South China Sea, Photo: EyePress / Digital Globe

In 2002, the two sides settled on a transitional agreement, namely the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), as a prelude to a more robust pact down the road. 

But claimant states, notably China, repeatedly violated the DOC’s emphasis on the need for “restraint” and, accordingly, avoidance of any provocative action which would exacerbate the disputes.

After long-drawn negotiations, the two sides announced the finalization of a “draft” for the COC in 2018. But a cursory look at the at the outline of the COC framework makes it clear that China is still unwilling to subject itself to any binding document. 

In the section on “objectives”, the draft document states the need to “establish a rules-based framework containing a set of norms [author’s emphasis] to guide the conduct of parties and promote maritime cooperation in the South China Sea.” 

In the section on “principles”, the document suggested that it will not be “an instrument to settle territorial disputes or maritime delimitation issues.” In short, the current COC negotiations are, at best, a repackaged version of the DOC. 

There is growing concern that China is simply using the COC negotiations as cover for its militarization of the disputed land features in the South China Sea. 

Washington has warned against any new pact which would reinforce China’s expansive claims in the area at the expense of freedom of navigation and overflight for external powers. 

America’s fears were reinforced in light of reports that Beijing had been pushing for a COC which would allow it to exercise de facto veto over the prerogative of other claimant states to (i) conduct naval exercises with “countries from outside the region” and (ii) engage in joint energy exploration projects with “companies from countries outside the region” in the South China Sea. 

As a result, the US and its allies have repeatedly underscored the need for a legally-binding document in accordance with modern international law, namely the UNCLOS.

“We remain committed to upholding freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea – a critical throughway for global commerce and connectivity – and we support ASEAN’s negotiation of a code of conduct consistent with international law,” Blinken said during his visit to Jakarta this week. 

Source : AsiaTimes