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China has taken a bolder stance in the South China Sea conflict. Besides attempts to divide the Asean and break their unity, China has used military and other forces to encroach into other countries’ territorial waters.

There has been increasingly widespread condemnation of the Chinese invasion of waters claimed or belonging to other nations. Most of these nations are members of the Asean, including Vietnam and Malaysia.

In 2016, the Arbitral Tribunal ruling gave the Asean a boost.

The tribunal ruling says China has no legal basis in its claims over the South China Sea bordering the Asean countries, thus rejecting the ruling.

Using the nine-dash line, China has taken steps to control most of the South China Sea waters and has also built some artificial Islands or has illegally occupied existing landmasses in the seas.

The infamous nine-dash line delimits its territory in the SCS, showing that almost all the seas bordering the Asean countries belong to China.


This is where the Code of Conduct or CoC comes into the picture.

What is the code of conduct in the South China Sea?

The code of conduct is a set of rules outlining the norms, responsibilities and proper practice for the parties engaged in the SCS conflict.

Asean and China agreed to set up a CoC in the South China Sea during a 2002 summit.

Experts say the SCS is a very important shipping lane which is also rich in mineral and marine resources. The CoC is to cover all the aspects from security, ownership, respect of international laws and stability or future economic exploitations of the South China Sea.

The CoC is important because it offers an opportunity for the Asean to have a hand in the security dealings in the disputed seas.

China is the dominant force in the SCS, and this reduces the Asean to delivering statements without enforcing their security needs.

With the CoC, there is a huge gap in the expectations between Beijing and the Asean nations.

For China, the code should be non-binding, and it should be an instrument of reference to improve regional trust only. This would allow Beijing to carry out its activities without offending or seen as encroaching upon the territories of other claimants.

Some Asean members do not see it this way. While there is a lack of consensus among the Asean, some countries want the CoC to be more than just a piece of paper.


Some Asean members think the CoC should be more than a tool to manage the disagreements or become a stability building tool in the disputed seas.

They believe it should put emphasis on freedom of navigation and the security of the huge but bullied fishing communities around the Asean region.

They also believe the existing international law and the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea must be indispensable in the COC.

The Asean countries bordering the SCS want to see the development of trans-boundary living marine resources management.

They also want to see mutual humanitarian help for Asean fishermen in response to China’s encroachment in the disputed waters.


While the negotiations are on for the formulation and completion of the CoC, China has been active in building its ‘trust’ with some Asean members.

It has worked well so far for Beijing with its enhanced economic relations with Cambodia and the Philippines. This is not to mention China’s relations with Indonesia and perhaps, to a certain extent, Malaysia.

Some Asean countries have taken the middle road in the conflict. They won’t discuss the matter or side with Asean because there is no unity on this issue.

Asean today stands divided on the CoC, and on almost everything else that is threatening the unity and peace in the region.

The policy of divide and rule has worked for the Chinese but there is hope this may change with the adoption of a few drastic measures by some Asean nations.


  • Here is an insight into the aim of this event and the issues to tackle.
  • How much of the CoC should be a tool for peace and security for the Asean?
  • Should the respect of international law and the formulation of a CoC for all parties be part of the document?
  • Should the CoC become the legal tool that would regulate the future of the SCS and set the boundaries needed in the Asean’s relations with Beijing?
  • Can the CoC become a tool that solves the SCS conflict?
  • The militarization of the SCS by China and foreign powers: Will the formulation of the CoC address that?
  • A look at some historical events leading to the Arbitral Tribunal ruling and the current state of affairs in the SCS.


WorldFuture Org is an NGO dedicated to anti-war and peace activities in the region.

Our past events include forums on Nato and its policies in Asia in 2009, World War II and Multilateralism, which held at the KLCC Convention Center in 2010, ASEAN UNITY after the Arbitral Tribunal ruling held in 2016.

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