The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has spilled over into regional geopolitics as it threatens to delay the completion of the elusive Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea, with ASEAN and Chinese officials unable to meet face-to-face at the negotiating table.
As countries closed their borders and physical distancing measures took effect around the world to prevent COVID-19 from spreading further, restrictions on international travel and face-to-face contact have led many to carry out diplomacy virtually.
However, Indonesia’s point man for ASEAN affairs, Jose Tavares, has insisted that negotiations on the COC would require officials from both sides to be physically present in one place.
“It will be very hard to negotiate the COC draft virtually, so we’ll wait until the situation improves and we can resume the talks [in person],” Jose told reporters on Wednesday.
Experts have alluded to the “ASEAN Way” of diplomacy that espouses both collective bargaining and building personal relationships based on mutual trust – two strategies that are invariably best served by face-to-face interactions.
Before the viral outbreak occurred, ASEAN and China had scheduled a series of meetings around the region, first in Brunei in February, followed by negotiations in the Philippines in May, Indonesia in August and China in October.
However, all meetings were postponed due to the pandemic, as countries in the region looked inward to mitigate the crisis.
As COVID-19 spreads across the globe, Southeast Asia has become a particularly affected region, with more than 122,000 confirmed cases and 3,552 deaths recorded as of Wednesday.
“We were supposed to finish the second reading this year,” Jose said during the virtual briefing. “Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has said that the negotiations will be completed next year, but it might be delayed due to the force majeure.”
In 2019, ASEAN and China completed the first reading of a “single draft” text that was announced at the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in Singapore a year earlier.
The text underpins all future negotiations of the COC, a requirement in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) in the South China Sea that Beijing had flouted since its adoption.
At the ASEAN Summit a few months later, China’s Li said the COC talks would be completed within three years – by 2021.
Jose underlined the increasing importance of the COC and the collective responsibility to build confidence in negotiations, as tensions ran high following China’s various standoffs with Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines in the disputed waters.
Even Indonesia got involved in a diplomatic spat with China earlier this year, further fanning the flames of tension, after decades of ASEAN keeping its maritime disputes with China under wraps.
Indonesia is not a claimant in the South China Sea dispute, a stance it reaffirmed in writing for the first time since 2010, but it has an interest in maintaining peace and stability through ASEAN.
Since 2002, ASEAN and China have been locked in a protracted struggle to produce the COC, a set of guidelines expected to govern safe conduct in the South China Sea. The resource-rich body of water lies at the center of a dispute between China, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines.
For decades, China has laid claim to the disputed waters based on “historic rights”, an argument that was eventually invalidated by a 2016 international arbitration ruling that the Philippines initiated and that set a precedent in favor of the other claimants.
Beijing rejected the ruling, choosing instead to build up its military presence in one of the world’s busiest maritime trade routes and pick apart the regional consensus.
Disagreements still remain between ASEAN and China on the details of the COC, including whether to make it legally binding and whether its application would be severely limited in scope.
Despite the delay, Jose said that ASEAN was still optimistic that the negotiations would be completed, owing to the fact that both sides had finally shored up the political will to move forward.
“We also hope that what is discussed at the negotiating table can be reflected on the ground,” he said.