A step forward, then a step back in South China Sea dispute

A step forward, then a step back in South China Sea dispute

Yesterday brought good and bad news in the spat over sovereignty in the South China Sea. At a meeting of the annual ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Bali, Indonesia, representatives from the ASEAN countries and China agreed upon a set of guidelines for resolving territorial disputes in the sea, where six countries – China, Vietnam, the Phillippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan – have overlapping sovereignty claims. The new deal, as outlined by the Jakarta Post, builds off the body’s Declaration of Conduct (DOC), a nonbinding agreement signed in 2002 aimed at facilitating a legal agreement to resolve sovereignty disputes and prevent conflict in the region

Official reactions to the ARF deal have varied. Chinese assistant foreign minister and meeting co-chair Liu Zhenmin has called the agreement a "milestone document," and his fellow co-chair, Vietnamese assistant foreign minister Pham Quang Vinh, said it was "significant and a good start."  Nonetheless, it’s important to note that the adopted guidelines are not legally binding; they merely reiterate the need to conform with the DOC, and they also lack a deadline for the implementation of a legal accord to resolve the conflict. Filipino Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario highlighted this concern when he said that more steps were needed to "add teeth" to the new deal.

Events later on Wednesday confirmed the Philippines’s dissatisfaction with the ARF agreement. Four Filipino lawmakers and a Filipino military general ignored strong warnings from China and visited the island of Pagasa, the only island in the Spratlys populated by Filipinos, in a "peace and sovereignty mission." They joined residents to sing the national anthem and called for improvements in facilities on the island, which has no schools or hospitals for its 60 inhabitants. A spokesman from the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed outrage about the visit.

Wednesday’s events came as Hillary Clinton wrapped up her tour of India and prepared to join ASEAN representatives at the security forum in Bali. At the same meeting last year, she surprised Chinese officials when she called resolution of the sovereignty disputes a "leading diplomatic priority" for the U.S. She looks set to reiterate the position this year. We’ll see whether China agrees.