China's Code of Conduct negotiations are a farce

Beijing's participation in Code of Conduct negotiations with ASEAN is a farce-- a fig leaf behind which it hides its imperialist ambitions of total South China Sea conquest.
Ray Powell | OCTOBER 31, 2023
China's Code of Conduct negotiations are a farce

Ray Powell




I am frequently asked to comment on the interminable South China Sea Code of Conduct (CoC) negotiations, and whether there are prospects for success. Sadly, I generally refer to myself as a CoC pessimist

There's a simple reason for this: China is negotiating in bad faith.

Too harsh? Look at the evidence and judge for yourself.

China routinely and brazenly violates the existing Declaration on the Conduct (DoC) of Parties in the South China Sea--the agreement it signed with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) nations back in 2002. 

Look at what China's current Foreign Minister Wang Yi signed his name to on behalf of China:

3. The Parties reaffirm their respect for and commitment to the freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea as provided for by the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea;

4. The Parties concerned undertake to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea;

5. The Parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.

Does China abide by the DoC? Let's look at the evidence just from the past eight months:

Screenshot 2023-10-30 at 5.32.30 PM.png

Beijing--which signed its commitment to the freedom of navigation, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and the exercise of self-restraint--has, by the application of overwhelming force, carried out a years-long illegal blockade of a Philippine outpost in the South China Sea. 

Beijing has repeatedly and brazenly acted against the "universally recognized principles of international law"--including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)--based on its own unilaterally declared "indisputable sovereignty" over the South China Sea.

Does this sound like a country that negotiates in good faith?

The entire reason ASEAN countries are so eager for an enforceable CoC is because China's violation of the DoC has been so egregious--and that is the very reason why China will never agree to the kind of CoC ASEAN needs.

China's participation in CoC negotiations are a farce. In Beijing's view, all the responsibility for self-restraint and the peaceful resolution of disputes lies with its ASEAN neighbors, who are expected to restrain themselves and submit peacefully to Chinese dominion. 

Beijing's participation in CoC talks are merely the fig leaf behind which it hides its imperialist ambitions of conquest.

Beijing's ultimate goal is to either: 

(a.) prolong the negotiations indefinitely until it consolidates its effective control over the entire South China Sea; or 

(b.) get a sufficiently weak and unenforceable CoC that it can then claim supersedes all other international laws by agreement of all "relevant" parties, thus resolving the dissonance between its supposed fidelity to UNCLOS and its serial violations of the same.

Ray Powell

Ray is the Director of SeaLight and Project Lead for Project Myoushu at Stanford University's Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation. He's a 35-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force and was a 2021 Fellow at Stanford's Distinguished Careers Institute.

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