A Code that binds

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies

For the past 20 years we have been experiencing the process of globalization. But underneath globalization, the process of regionalization has also offered concrete benefits to participating states. In Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America, regional formations, organizations, economies and governments have been established for political, economic, sociocultural, environmental and security reasons.

As governments organize themselves in regional bodies, a bigger democratic question confronts the regional body politic: How are regional policies and structures representative of the interests of participating states? This challenge obliges the regional grouping to think of and enact policies on behalf of the interests of each member-state’s population. In different jurisdictions, the regional authority is also responsible for addressing emergent issues and problems.

In our region, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is confronted with the South China Sea dispute, which involves Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and the Philippines as well as China. It concerns one of the world’s most diverse marine biosystems, which is vital to the livelihood of millions of people associated with fisheries and potential oil resources. Each year, well over $5 trillion in trade traverse the contested waters.

Recently Asean foreign ministers agreed on a framework for a proposed Code of Conduct. Having an effective Code in place would help avoid incidents that can escalate tensions among the countries involved and prevent countries from gaining resources at the expense of others. In this regard, the current level of agreement within Asean for a framework for the Code is a commendable development. But for such a Code to be effective, it should be binding on the involved countries and should work according to established international law. For example, the ruling handed down in 2016 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague upholding the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone should not be disregarded.

With an effective Code of Conduct in place, the involved countries should be better placed to forge bilateral and multilateral agreements that could further calm the choppy waters. Such agreements may cover a coordination scheme to manage commercial fishing, defined protocols for encounters at sea, environmental protection and marine scientific research, and other transboundary measures that protect the region’s citizens, trade, and livelihoods.

But for the region to make progress on these points, it must be serious about what it sets on paper. Outside of Southeast Asia, other countries want to see a strong Asean. For example, on Aug. 9 the foreign ministers of three of Asean’s dialogue partners—Australia, Japan and the United States—issued a joint statement “urg[ing] Asean member states and China to ensure that the Code of Conduct be finalized in a timely manner, and that it be legally binding, meaningful, effective, and consistent with international law.”

Asean should be encouraged by others’ efforts to boost the region’s position, and set more positive changes in motion as it prepares the Code of Conduct. In light of recent positive developments, Asean could very well be in the process of building its cornerstone. Ultimately, the resolution of the dispute would not only foster a lasting peace in the region but also promote the economic and social interests of the contesting parties. Beyond the South China Sea, such a success could be a critical step toward the development of a meaningful, secure, politico-economic and sociocultural community.

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