South China Sea Code: Main Features

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Foreign ministers of Southeast Asia and China adopted a negotiating framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

The framework seeks to advance a 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea, which has mostly been ignored by claimant states, particularly China, which has built seven manmade islands in disputed waters, three of which are equipped with runways, surface-to-air missiles and radars.

A code of conduct is a set of rules outlining the norms and rules and responsibilities of, or proper practices for, an individual, party or organisation.

Asean and China agreed to set up a code of conduct in the South China Sea during a 2002 summit amid heightened tensions in the disputed waters. The region in question includes one of the world’s most important shipping lanes, believed to be rich in mineral and marine resources.

For Beijing, a code of conduct could be a non-binding instrument that can be leveraged to improve regional trust, rather than resolve overlapping claims; Asean members, however, may have a different opinion.

The draft framework of the code of conduct was made final at an Asean and China senior officials meeting in southwestern China’s Guizhou province.

Australia, Japan and the United States urged Southeast Asia and China to ensure that a South China Sea code of conduct they have committed to draw up will be legally binding and said they strongly opposed “coercive unilateral actions”.

China’s construction of military facilities on the Spratly Islands has continued, along with other familiar sorts of behavior such as the coercion of other claimant states (most notably Vietnam on energy exploitation) and pressure on other regional and extra-regional states not to “interfere.”