China became the world’s second largest economy while Southeast Asia prospered and became one of the most dynamic regions during several decades of peace. This highlights the importance not only of maintaining peace but also of enhancing friendly relations in Asia.
The South China Sea is a potential flashpoint for disrupting that peace. This gives urgency to finalizing a code of conduct that will be binding on the parties concerned. For several years now, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been hammering out a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea that is acceptable to the regional bloc as well as the non-ASEAN claimants to the disputed waters, China and Taiwan.
A ruling handed down last year by the United Nations-backed Permanent Arbitration Court in The Hague, which invalidated Beijing’s so-called nine-dash-line claim over nearly the entire South China Sea, cannot be ignored in any code of conduct. The court ruling, which also defined the Philippines’ maritime entitlements within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone, was based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which both the country and China have ratified.
Any code of conduct in Southeast Asian waters must abide by international rules if the 10-member bloc wants to become a “global ASEAN” as envisioned in its move toward regional economic integration. The arbitral court ruling, however, inevitably complicates ASEAN negotiations with China on the code of conduct.
The negotiations are expected to continue as the Philippines chairs the grouping during its 50thanniversary this year. Forging a sea code that concerned parties will accept and, more importantly, implement poses a challenge particularly to the holder of the rotating ASEAN chair.
In persuading all the parties to finalize a sea code, the Philippines can invoke the most persuasive argument, which is to ensure peace. The region has prospered and benefited immeasurably from the dividends of peace. Approving a code of conduct in contested waters can only enhance that peace and guarantee even greater prosperity for all.