BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The long-awaited Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea is unlikely to be concluded in 2021, Brunei’s second minister of foreign affairs has said.

Speaking to press after the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat last Thursday, YB Dato Seri Setia Hj Erywan PDPJ Hj Md Yusof told reporters that until in-person negotiations resume, it will be difficult to make progress.

“The COC, or the South China Sea, is a complex issue and it requires total diplomacy at work – not just negotiations, it will require physically meeting each other,” he said.

China has made sweeping claims over much of the resource-rich sea, including in areas also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.

A COC would set norms and rules in the South China Sea, underpinning efforts to prevent conflict.

Dato Hj Erywan added that although a 2021 conclusion to the COC had been targeted, it is now unlikely:

“To be frank, with COVID-19 and nobody wanting to travel… Negotiations won’t be done physically.”

The three-year timeline to conclude the COC was initially put forward by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in 2018 after years of political impasse, but deliberations between ASEAN and China have now stalled due the coronavirus pandemic.

A first reading of the draft COC was completed in July 2019, but the second reading never took place due to the onset of COVID-19 travel curbs and health protocols that kept negotiations from progressing.

The year 2021 was supposed to be the year negotiators begin their third and final reading of the text.

“The negotiations were proceeding nicely, up until the point that we started to close up to avoid the spread of COVID-19,” Dato Hj Erywan said.

“It’s the personal interaction that’s missing. So that has stalled negotiations throughout 2020.”

US Navy aircraft carrier, the USS John C Stennis, patrols waters in the South China Sea, just off the coast of Brunei in May 2016. Photo: US Navy

Brunei issued a chairman’s statement at the end of the retreat, the first ASEAN foreign ministers meeting of the year, noting that some ministers expressed concerns on “land reclamations, activities, and serious incidents in the area which have eroded trust and confidence” — a subtle reproach of China’s activities.

Disagreements remain between ASEAN and China on the geographical area to be covered by the Code; and whether the agreement should be legally binding and enforceable.

Its forerunner, the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) in the South China Sea, has been largely ineffective in preventing militarisation of the waters.

Brunei, which is chairing ASEAN this year, said officials will look at “creative ways” to make progress on the COC this year.

“We may not reach any agreement [on the COC this year] but if we can make progress by further deepening the understanding on specific issues, then when the time comes for actual physical meetings, progress can be made quickly,” YB Dato Hj Erywan said.

“This will be the only way forward – to have virtual discussions first on the sensitive issues, to at least understand each other better. So that’s the best way we can move forward.”