Notwithstanding agreement on a code of conduct for operating in disputed areas of the South China Sea, the United States must continue to demonstrate an unwavering commitment to peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region through strengthened partnerships with ASEAN nations.
Foreign ministers from Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in Bali, Indonesia on Thursday for their annual meeting. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived later that day for the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) which brings ASEAN leaders together with the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Australia, and Russia for an annual security dialogue. Both meetings take place in a period of heightened tensions in the region between multiple claimants to disputed territories in the South China Sea. In the past few months, both Hanoi and Manila have protested to Beijing over perceived aggressive maritime actions on the part of China in the disputed territorial areas of the South China Sea which are believed to be rich in critical energy resources and minerals.
Earlier on Thursday, ASEAN leaders met with Chinese officials to sign and endorse a set of guidelines for the Declaration of Conduct (DoC) for claimants of the disputed territories of the South China Sea. For nearly a decade, ASEAN and China have struggled to reach agreement on a code of conduct for operating in the disputed areas of the South China Sea.
Reaching agreement on a code of conduct for the disputed South China Sea territories will dampen fears of a near-term conflict in the region. China and the other ASEAN claimants are likely to respond in the short term with more cooperative rhetoric and less threatening maritime actions in the South China Sea. However, a code of conduct will not mollify regional concerns over China’s strategic intentions. Beijing continues to move aggressively to build-up Chinese military capabilities. Moreover, transparency on the precise level of Chinese defense spending has not been forthcoming from Beijing despite pressure from the United States and other regional players.
Beijing likely views agreement on the code of conduct as a means to stave-off further involvement from Washington in the regional dispute. China accused the United States of meddling in the South China Sea issue when Secretary of State Clinton noted in public remarks last year Washington’s interest in the peaceful resolution of the territorial disputes. Moreover, China has complained loudly to the United States in recent weeks over U.S. military exercises in the region involving some of the claimants to the disputed territories. Whether or not an agreement is reached, Washington cannot allow Beijing’s acquiescence to the code of conduct to put on hold ongoing efforts to strengthen security and military-to-military cooperation with South Asian states since maintaining peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region remains a U.S. national security interest.
[Carolyn Leddy held senior positions with the U.S. Department of State and the National Security Council under the George W. Bush administration. She was a 2009-2010 Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi Ltd. International Affairs Fellow in Japan and Visiting Fellow at the National Institute for Defense Studies in Tokyo.]
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