Behind China's suggestion of COC

VietNamNet Bridge – China’s unexpected proposal to negotiate with ASEAN on the Code of Conduct on the East Sea (COC) after its recent provoking activities makes related countries feel incomprehensible.

The East Sea disputes

east sea, china, coc, doc, asean, conflict, dispute, sovereignty, territory, truong sa

A soldier on Da Tay B Island.

On April 11, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said in the meeting of ASEAN Foreign Ministers in Brunei, that China and ASEAN countries would come together to discuss the building of the COC. It is special in this statement is that the meeting was proposed by China, the country that recently strengthen the implementation of aggressive behaviors in the disputed area in the East Sea.

China’s proposal has caused a bit of a surprise to many people because China is still carrying out actions asserting its sovereignty in the east Sea. These are mainly unilateral actions based on power to negate the interests of other countries in the disputed area. It had been thought that Beijing would continue tough attitude in the issues of territorial sovereignty, then they proposed to discuss the COC, the mechanism that China always refused to discuss.

The COC, in principle, is a more binding mechanism than the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the East Sea (DOC). More specifically, the COC will be a code of conduct for the purpose of managing disputes, not to let’s dispute evolve into unnecessary conflicts.

China’s initiative in this case would create more confusion, but it is sure to get huge welcome from the ASEAN countries. So far, the delay of COC has made the situation in the East Sea become uncertain and difficult to predict. China is still doing what they think right, while other countries such as Vietnam or the Philippines are still struggling to protect their sovereignty. If the COC is signed, it will bring about many long-term benefits, and the nearest benefit is to reduce tensions in the East Sea, help make this important region into a zone of peace, stability and sustainable development.

But China’s sudden offer to negotiate with ASEAN on the COC after a period of time making provoking activities in the East Sea makes related countries feel incomprehensible. However, some predictions can be made for this situation.

Firstly, it seems that after the time of provoking, with tests, and was violently protested from the international community, China has realized that they cannot continue to maintain the "hawk" policy if it still wants to continue development without having pressure or criticism.

China is now criticized and under pressure of the West on its monetary policy, with the maintenance of low price for the yuan, while its policy on the East Sea has made its image in the eyes of neighbors and other countries worse.

The deterioration in economic relations with partners and in political relations with neighboring countries is certainly not a positive expression for the "peaceful rise", and its declaration of "peaceful coexistence is visible a lie. Therefore, making proposal on the negotiation of the COC can be a positive change (!), showing China’s wish of mediation, a manifestation of the self-limitation of power and be willing to participate in institutions, thereby reducing the threat to neighboring countries and improving the image of China (?).

Second, China may worry about the lawsuit of the Philippines against it at the International Court when the Philippines seem to be quite confident. If the Philippines are successful in the lawsuit, China will be subject to the mandatory legal rulings, even have to abandon its ambitious U-shaped line. It is more danger that this lawsuit will create legal precedent for the countries with maritime disputes with China to sue China.

With weak legal basis primarily based on the distortion, the possibility that China can protect itself against these lawsuits is not high, and then the maritime interests of China will no longer exist. Compared with that, the prospect of a COC, if binding, is also a smart choice because it still guarantees the long-term interests of China. Furthermore, in the process of building COC, China may also hope that the Philippines will withdraw its lawsuit.

Third, under the pressure of the international community and the lawsuit of the Philippines, China finds that it does not want to be pushed or passive, so to avoid other countries, particularly the United States, to put it into the rules of the game that they do not want, China will actively establish its rules.

In the previous tenure, the Obama administration expressed the view of endeavoring to put through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), so in this tenure, the adoption of UNCLOS likely happens if China continues to act regardless of international law health.

With the thought of being the leader and the protector of the world order, the U.S. will rely on international law to create legitimacy, to intervene in the East Sea conflict and promote the building of a more building COC with China. Meanwhile, China will also be constrained by the U.S. military power, and the legal constraints created by the U.S.

Meanwhile, the active building of the COC will help china make the rules in their favor, thereby ensuring long-term interests of China in the East Sea and eliminating the excuse for the US to be able to participate in the region.

Fourth, the lessons of the negotiation process of the COC with China in 1999 - 2002 showed that under the increasing pressure of the international community and the US’ assertion of support for the building of the COC, China likely COC proposed negotiation of the COC to distract the world opinion without the goodwill of cooperation to build the COC.

In the past, China agreed to negotiate the COC with ASEAN just because of the pressure from international community and the increase of the risk of war in the region. But the negotiations failed due to disagreements between the parties and instead of the COC, the DOC was signed, with no legal value.

Therefore, in this case, it can be worried that China offered the proposal just to remove pressure from the international community, as well as the U.S. intervention in the process of building COC. Since then, China may put pressure on the ASEAN countries in the negotiation process, and most likely, this COC will also go into the same track with the COC negotiation in 1999 - 2002 if the ASEAN countries do not have careful preparation and needed support.

A more appropriate COC must meet several basic elements and the most important thing is the binding that all related countries, especially China, has to support and follow.

Such a mechanism needs to be established based on multilateral cooperation between the parties. China’s move, as being discussed above, there will be no major impact to the field sovereignty and the current situation in the East Sea. This action only as a way for China to ease the current situation, reduce tension to deal with more pressing issues (North Korea) because after all, the COC is only a management mechanism not the way to resolve disputes.

Vu Thanh Cong - Nguyen The Phuong
east sea, china, coc, doc, asean, conflict, dispute, sovereignty, territory, truong sa