South China Sea Becoming Focus of Diplomatic, Military Activity

Renewed talks on Code of Conduct?

China and ASEAN member states have agreed to resume discussions on a possible Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, an agreement that, if concluded, would “lay the foundation for long-term stability in the area and foster understanding among claimant countries.” The Code of Conduct idea has been in gestation since 1996, followed by a Declaration on a Code of Conduct in 2002, Guidelines on its implementation in 2011, and a Single Draft Negotiating Text in 2018. Yet, despite these efforts, no real breakthrough on managing the contested area has been achieved. However, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the negotiating parties agreed on part of the Code’s text during a China-ASEAN virtual summit on Tuesday.

Military drills and belligerent rhetoric . . .

Despite positive news emerging from the China-ASEAN summit, several military activities in and around the South China Sea are likely to rankle Beijing. For example, the UK committed last month to permanently deploy two warships in the South China Sea area. Earlier this week, Germany sent a warship of its own to the contested waters for the first time in two decades. Additionally, India announced that it will be deploying a naval task force in the area before participating in the multilateral Malabar naval exercises in late August in the Western Pacific. The U.S. and various allies are planning to conduct other military drills in the area this month. China will also be holding military exercises in the South China Sea from August 6 to 10.

Competition for influence . . .

Both Southeast Asia and the South China Sea have become focal points of competition for influence between the U.S. and China. Following official visits by the U.S.’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Vice President Kamala Harris also plans to visit Southeast Asia later this month, when she is expected to emphasize the American commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region and to reinforcing regional security. During its virtual meeting with ASEAN states on Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned his counterparts of U.S. interference and referred to the U.S. as the “biggest troublemaker” in the region.