TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - As tension increases in the South China Sea and the drafting of the Asean-China Code of Conduct goes ‘nowhere,’ half of Asean’s 10 member-states should unite and craft a framework that will manage tensions in the disputed waters, analysts say.
It was Christmas Day, but instead of celebrating with their families back home, a group of fishermen from Barangay Cato in the Philippine coastal town of Infanta in Pangasinan sailed to Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground off the coast of neighboring Zambales province that China occupied in 2012 following a standoff with the Philippines.
Grounded for several weeks due to bad weather, the Filipino fishermen sailed off as soon as the winds calmed down.
They have limited access inside the shoal, where fish is most bountiful, but village official Alfredo Barnachea said it was better than nothing. Chinese vessels used to drive the Filipinos away from their traditional fishing ground, depriving them of their livelihood. They now let them fish around it. In at least one instance, during bad weather, they were allowed to take shelter inside the shoal.
“Sana mapag-usapan nang maigi na ‘yan. Wala na ‘yung ganoong harang harang para maaliwalas ‘yung mga mangingisda na makapangisda doon sa dapat nilang pupuntahan. (We hope they’ll be able to talk it out. Fishermen should not be blocked and should be allowed to fish in the area),” Barnachea told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) in a phone interview.
He knew it was not guaranteed.
In November, in another part of the South China Sea, Chinese coast guard vessels used water cannons to block Philippine boats en route to resupply troops stationed at a wrecked ship at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal. The shoal is inside the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ), upheld by a 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) that dismissed China’s nine-dash-line claim over almost all of the South China Sea. Beijing does not recognize the decision, however.
The new incident in Ayungin Shoal set in motion another diplomatic protest from Manila, one of at least 183 this year alone. Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr said it underscored the urgency of completing the Code of Conduct (COC) that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) was negotiating with China. It’s a framework that he said “went nowhere.”
The proposed COC will not settle which country owns what in the waters where billions of dollars in trade pass through yearly. It was intended to provide mechanisms to avoid miscalculations as the waters become increasingly militarized, and to manage tensions so that skirmishes do not escalate if miscalculations do erupt.
The COC had been compared with the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), an agreement reached at the 2014 Western Pacific Naval Symposium that provides navies safety guidelines to avoid collisions, ensure safe speeds and distances, and establish radio communication procedures.
The Philippines also proposed a provision in the COC calling for the “respect of the exercise of traditional fishing rights by fishermen… [and] access to features and fishing grounds,” based on a report published on The Diplomat.
The Philippines is the country coordinator for the talks with Beijing. In August 2018, Asean and China announced a Single Draft Negotiating Text for the COC, offering hopes that the mechanism could work.
But before Locsin’s latest statement, President Rodrigo Duterte in August 2019 had already expressed concerns about delays.