[ANALYSIS] Will boat sinking put pressure on ASEAN Summit?

China’s unsafe and dangerous navigation in the South China Sea will be under the spotlight at this weekend’s gathering of 10 Southeast Asian leaders in Bangkok, where the 34th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit will try to come up with a single and common draft on a formal Code of Conduct in the area.

Since the late 1990s, ASEAN has been persuading China and claimant-states in the regional bloc to draw up a rules-based code of conduct to guide each country on how they should behave and act in the South China Sea. The waters are believed to hold rich deposits of oil and gas and to be a major source of maritime products. An estimated $3 trillion worth of sea-borne goods also pass this body of water every year.

China claims almost entirely the South China Sea, delineating its borders by an imaginary nine-dash line. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have conflicting claims. 

In 2002, ASEAN and China signed an informal code, called Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), but it remained not fully implemented, particularly the agreement’s paragraph 5, which mandates claimant-states 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.”

For 15 years, China delayed the ASEAN proposal to turn the DOC into a legally-binding Code of Conduct while it went island building in the Paracels and Spratly in 2012.

A year later, the Philippines went to an arbitration court questioning China’s excessive claims, and argued separately that Beijing’s-island building could be a violation of the DOC.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague nullified China’s nine-dash-line claim in a landmark ruling in 2016, which also declared all shoals, reefs, and atolls in the Spratly chain of islands as high-tide features or low-tide elevations that could not sustain human habitation or economic life of their own and, therefore, shall not have exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

Beijing violated Manila’s sovereign rights

The ruling favored Manila, which declared that Beijing has been violating the Philippines’ sovereign right on its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone, particularly on the Scarborough Shoal, Second Thomas Shoal, and Mischief Reef, which China seized in the mid-1990s and is now a sprawling air and naval base.

Both China and Taiwan rejected the arbitration court’s rulings and all other claimant-states went on to reclaim and expand the features they were occupying, except the Philippines, which imposed a moratorium on construction activities. It resumed repairs and upgrade of its facilities after Rodrigo Duterte assumed the presidency in 2016, shortly after the Hague victory.

Two years ago, China finally agreed to proceed with negotiations for a formal Code of Conduct to de-escalate tension in the South China Sea, drawing up a framework agreement but resisting efforts to include provisions for sanctions for erring claimant-states.

It may take some more years for both ASEAN and China to agree on a formal Code of Conduct, and the boat incident in the Reed Bank on June 9, 2019 could force Southeast Asian countries to put pressure on China for an early and swift agreement on a rules-based code.

The ramming and sinking of a Filipino fishing boat  in the Reed Bank is not the first. China has been firing shots, ramming, and destroying Vietnamese fishing boats in the South China Sea. And it has prevented not only Filipino boats from fishing in the area but all other nationalities who stray into the disputed waters.

ASEAN agenda

The fishing boat mishap at Reed Bank, which both China and the Philippines now dismissed as an ordinary maritime incident, would likely take center stage when Southeast Asian leaders exchange views on regional security issues – even if Rodrigo Duterte chooses to avoid the topic and even if China does not want to politicize and internationalize the issue. (READ: PH boat sinking 'wake-up call' to finish South China Sea code

Vietnam and Indonesia will likely raise the issue about China’s dangerous and unsafe navigation, not necessarily the Reed Bank incident, as part a bigger discussion on the South China Sea. This topic is expected to take up more time since the situation in the Korean peninsula has simmered down as well as threats from Islamist extremists after the defeat of Islamic State militants.

It will be a surprise if the Reed Bank incident will be included in the chairman’s statement to be issued at the end of the summit meeting on Sunday, June 23. But discussions on a single draft on Code of Conduct are expected to land prominently in the outcome document to be issued. 

Domestically, the boat sinking will not simply fade away as the third anniversary of the favorable arbitration ruling that the Philippines won is coming in July and ASEAN defense leaders will also be meeting in Bangkok next month.

Strategic interests over fishing concern

After all these diplomatic gatherings, the Philippines would likely want to forget the Reed Bank issue as the Duterte administration seeks to pursue its bigger national goals in relation to China, the world's second biggest economy after the United States.

Majority of the country’s fishermen could not compete with other Asia countries anyway because of their outdated fishing gears and boats. The gas fields in Malampaya are soon drying up, making it important and urgent to explore and extract from the Reed Bank.

Manuel Pangilinan’s Philex Petroleum, which won the contract to drill in the Reed Bank, cannot proceed with their work after a survey ship it hired in 2011 was harassed and stopped by Chinese vessels.

The only way the gas fields will become productive is through a partnership with China's CNOOC, or China National Offshore Oil Corporation. Davao businessman Dennis Uy has already bought into the company.

A deal with China will leave little room for local fishermen to catch fish in Reed Bank, further depleting the country’s declining fisheries production below 2 million tons a year.

Indeed, the Reed Bank incident is an eye-opener for the country’s policymakers to start modernizing the fishing industry by organizing hand-to-mouth fisherfolks into cooperatives, providing them with larger ocean-going vessels that could compete with other Asian countries, and upgrading the capabilities of the coast guard and the fisheries bureau to effectively enforce environmental and fisheries law.

Finally, an early adoption of a Code of Conduct will prevent a repeat of the Reed Bank incident. – Rappler.com

 

A veteran defense reporter who won the Pulitzer in 2018 for Reuters' reporting on the Philippines' war on drugs, the author is a former Reuters journalist.