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Why China Suddenly Wants Rules for a Disputed Sea

FILE - In this Friday, July 8, 2016, file photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese missile frigate Yuncheng launches an anti-ship missile during a military exercise in the waters near south China's Hainan Island and Paracel Islands.
Why China Suddenly Wants Rules for a Disputed Sea
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The Chinese government plans to reopen talks with 10 Southeast Asian nations on a code of conduct for the South China Sea, political experts say.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in August that talks on the South China Sea should reopen, state-controlled news media in China reported.

Wang also said at a meeting in Beijing this month that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations should try to finish the code “at a faster pace,” China Central Television reported on its website.

In July, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said that Chinese territorial claims in the sea are illegal. Pompeo also said the United States would help other countries that have disputes with the Chinese government over the sea.

The Chinese government claims about 90 percent of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea. However, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam also have claims.

Code of conduct talks are popular in Southeast Asia. The countries, including China, reached a framework deal in 2002, but talks broke down in 2019.

“The reason that I think the Chinese first agreed to the code of conduct was to block out the Americans, that the Chinese could say…the South China Sea is peaceful…so to the Americans, do not meddle,’” said Yun Sun. He is the East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center in Washington.

China has the world’s third strongest armed forces. It has angered some Southeast Asian countries over the past 10 years by building up some of the sea’s small islets for military use. Southeast Asian nations value the sea for its fishing and for its underwater energy resources.

The United States does not claim the sea, but also does not want China to have too much control over it. Chinese officials worry about what the United States will do next, experts believe. The two powers already have disputes in trade, technology and diplomacy.

“China now really wants to finalize the code of conduct because the South China Sea right now could reach a boiling point any time now,” said Aaron Raben. He is a researcher at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation in Manila. He added that China does not want more problems with the U.S.

Southeast Asian countries are listening now to both China and the United States. The Philippines won a ruling in an international arbitration court against China in 2016. Vietnam has considered bringing its own case.

Vietnam considers international court case

A Southeast Asian country could ask for a ruling in an international court on sovereignty disputes about the sea. China and the Association of Southeast Asian nations agreed in 2017 to restart the talks and, later, to finish them by 2021. A code of behavior would help prevent accidents that capsize fishing boats, and bring an end to dangerous conflicts.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China have not made progress on “details” in the code, said Huang Kwei-bo. He is vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei. But China believes that just reopening the talks will keep the United States out of the dispute, Huang said.

I’m Susan Shand.

VOA’s Ralph Jennings reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.

Words in This Story

code of conduct – n. a set of rule about how to behave

pace – n. the speed at which something moves

framework – n. a set of ideas or facts that provide support for

meddle v. to get involved in the activities of others when they
do not want your involvement

arbitration – n. a process of settling disagreement in which
the opposing sides present their opinions and ideas to a third
person or group for judgment

sovereignty – adj. a country’s independent authority and the
right to govern itself

capsize – v. to turn over so that the bottom is on top (a boat
overturns, for example)