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Buying time in the South China Sea

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“China hopes to complete talks on South China Sea code of conduct in 3 years,” says Xinhua News Agency. China security scholar M. Taylor Fravel tweeted an explanation:

Li Keqiang suggests in Singapore that a Code of Conduct [CoC] for the South China Sea will take another three years to complete (after agreeing upon a single draft in August).

Clearly, the process of negotiating, and of having a process, is more important than achieving a code to address the many issues in the area.  In other words, the talks are more of a journey than a destination. On the one hand, the South China Sea contains the world’s most complicated disputes, with conflicting claims to sovereignty over land features as well as jurisdiction over maritime zones. The interests of ASEAN states are not necessarily fully aligned.

On the other hand, the talks are aimed only at how to manage the disputes, not to resolve the underlying claims. Moreover, they can draw on many existing approaches in the maritime domain, such was the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea.

China has been able to negotiate the final resolution of many territorial disputes on its land border (often quickly) as well as bilateral border CBMs [coordinated border management agreements] with India and multilateral ones with Russian and some Central Asian states.

So, the CoC talks are about creating a diplomatic process and buying time, to lower tensions in the short term but without addressing the real issues that could spark another round of escalation.

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Jeremy Goldkorn

Jeremy Goldkorn worked in China for 20 years as an editor and entrepreneur. He is editor-in-chief of SupChina, and co-founder of the Sinica Podcast.

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