As the ASEAN Chairmanship of the Philippines comes to a close, the time for reflection begins.
As early as 1999, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers and China agreed on the need for a regional Code of Conduct. As the parties could not agree on such a Code, a non-binding political statement was signed in 2002 in Cambodia – the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).
Since the signing of the DOC, tensions in the South China have continued to rise due to militarization, reclamation, and incidents culminating in the 2012 stand-off at Scarborough Shoal. Despite this, talks between ASEAN and China on a Code did not take place. Given the unresolved nature of the disputes, the Philippines commenced a case in the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the legalities of China’s claims and the nature of the features found in the South China Sea, which ruled decidedly in favor of Manila’s position that China’s nine-dash-line had no legal basis.
A turning point came in 2017 during the ASEAN chairmanship of the Philippines. Significant developments occurred when consultations by the ASEAN-China Joint Working Group on the DOC (JWG-DOC) began on a framework for a Code of Conduct. These talks have culminated with the adoption in August 2017 in Manila of said framework by the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN and China who considered it as an important milestone in the developments in ASEAN-China relations with regard to the South China Sea. This was followed by an announcement by the Leaders of ASEAN and China during the Summit in November that consultations and negotiations would officially commence using the framework as the basis.
Enrique A. Manalo is Undersecretary for Policy at the Department for Foreign Affairs, Philippines. A career diplomat, he served as Philippine Ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg between 2010-2011 and from 2011 to 2016 served as Ambassador to the UK.
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