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South China Sea

Stalled South China Sea code stokes fears of China power grab

Coronavirus blocks in-person talks between ASEAN and Beijing

Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning takes part in a military drill in the Pacific Ocean.    © Reuters

JAKARTA -- Negotiations for a South China Sea code of conduct have stalled during the coronavirus pandemic, raising concerns among some Southeast Asian nations that China will exploit the delay to consolidate its presence in disputed waters.

Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc acknowledged the standstill after a virtual summit last Friday of Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders. Some observers now question whether the code can be agreed on by the 2021 target date proposed by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

Vietnam, one of the code's leading advocates, was among the first countries in the region to contain its coronavirus outbreak. It had proposed hosting an in-person summit to send a strong message on the code of conduct -- a long-sought upgrade to a nonbinding declaration that critics say lacks clear rules for the resource-rich, heavily traveled body of water.

But unlike the gathering Vietnam had proposed, the summit was held online as a precaution against infection.

Some ASEAN members, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, are still struggling to curb the coronavirus. Meanwhile, China has been increasing its presence in the waters as the rest of the world focuses on its response to the pandemic.

ASEAN and China have postponed meetings over the code of conduct scheduled this year, starting with a February gathering in Brunei. An ASEAN summit in April was also held online. 

"We can't negotiate this kind of thing virtually, so we can only wait until the situation improves," said an Indonesian Foreign Ministry official. The two sides are currently ironing out the language of the code, which requires delicate communication that can be difficult online.

ASEAN believes the code of conduct will help reduce the risk of an armed clash in the South China Sea.

"Concerns were expressed on the land reclamations, recent developments, activities and serious incidents" in the South China Sea, the chairman's statement at Friday's summit. The statement emphasized "the need to maintain and promote an environment conducive to" negotiations on the code of conduct.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi called for negotiations to resume quickly at a news conference last week.

The 10-nation bloc will hold the ASEAN Regional Forum in the summer, which will also include foreign ministers from China, the U.S., Russia and Japan, as well as the annual East Asia Summit in the fall. The East Asia Summit is an important forum for ASEAN to discuss the South China Sea with major nations, though it is unclear whether the leaders will be able to meet in person.

"Traditional, face-to-face meetings are important for diplomacy," Retno has said.

"In order to advance our diplomatic agenda, we need to first focus on curbing the pandemic within our own borders," an ASEAN source said.

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