Southeast Asian leaders were to announce today the start of negotiations with China on a so- called “Code of Conduct” in the disputed South China Sea in what they regard as a milestone but some experts dismiss as a non-starter. Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations also will sign an accord aiming to protect migrant workers from the poverty-wracked region during a two-day summit that opened today in Manila, according to a draft of a post-summit communique seen by The Associated Press. The ASEAN leaders also will reiterate their “grave concern” over North Korea’s development of “weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear and chemical weapons, and ballistic missile technologies,” and press their strong condemnation of terrorism in the communique. A draft a joint statement to be issued later in the day after ASEAN’s summit with China and seen by the AP welcomes the adoption by their foreign ministers in August of the framework of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea as “an important milestone.” It announces that both sides have agreed to officially start negotiations on the code. The statement expresses trust “that we will continue this positive momentum and work towards a substantive and effective COC” and looks forward to the code’s early conclusion.
Greg Poling, a Washington-based South China Sea expert, however, said, “The idea that this is going to lead to a binding way to manage things like fisheries depletion and oil and gas development or coast guard cooperation is a fantasy, and Beijing knows that.” “It took 15 years to negotiate a one-page outline that just restated the exact same thing they’re going to do with DOC,” he said, referring to the nonbinding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed in 2002. “If you look at the framework agreement signed earlier this year, there’s nothing there.” China has been opposed to a legally binding code, and Southeast Asian diplomats said even ASEAN is not unanimous in seeking a legally binding set of rules.