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A South China Sea Code of Conduct? Don’t Get Your Hopes Up.

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The recent China-ASEAN agreement on a “framework” for a South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC) has triggered an outburst of diplomatic optimism that a COC can be attained. Indeed, China-ASEAN agreement on the framework is being trumpeted as “steady progress” and “a potentially significant step toward cooling tensions.” This draft framework will be formally considered at a meeting of the parties’ foreign ministers in August.

But the sad reality is that there has been little progress toward a binding, robust COC. Indeed, optimism that continuing efforts will produce that result is exaggerated and misplaced. Basic obstacles to agreement on key COC provisions remain. For example, who gets to sign it? ASEAN and China, or China and each of the ASEAN members individually, or even “outsiders” that use the area? What is the area to be covered by the COC – the legally disputed areas remaining after the Hague arbitration decision rejecting both China’s nine-dash line claim and any EEZ or continental shelf for any of the Spratly features; the overlap of China’s original claim with that of others’; the maritime zones around the Paracels; or just the Spratlys? And the most important unanswered question is whether the COC is binding and has dispute settlement and enforcement mechanisms.

Yes, China has re-engaged in negotiations. But that is because Beijing wants and needs to improve relations with Southeast Asian nations, collectively and individually, after the erosion of its soft power by the 2016 arbitration decision against its claims and actions. On a more basic level, China wants to blunt any opportunities for the United........

© The Diplomat