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Why won't China sign the South China Sea code of conduct? (+video)

China dodged signing a code of conduct this week at the East Asia Summit, a regional security meeting.

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So agreements are popular between the smaller claimants that, in addition to Vietnam, include Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and the Philippines. They want a safety net against China, which is ranked No. 3 in the world in terms of military might.

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A 1999 regional code of conduct largely written by the Philippines was directed at containing China. In April this year, vessels from China and the Philippines were locked in a standoff over Scarborough Shoal, a South China Sea landmark west of Luzon Island.

China's take

China dodged signing the code of conduct this week at the East Asia Summit, a regional security meeting in Cambodia. But, Beijing's language on the issues in the South China Sea has swung from bristly to conciliatory. 

“China is using both hands, soft and hard, yet the hard hand would never come to military action,” says Lin Chong-pin, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “But code of conduct – has China agreed? Of course not.”

China is torn between being a good Asian neighbor but using its dominant role in the region to get the most out of the ocean instead of conceding rights to a group of rivals, analysts deduce. “[China] is a much bigger country and can leverage that better in its bilateral agreements,” Ms. Glaser says.

The code being discussed now would include the whole 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations bloc.

China also must mind Washington or risk that the No.1 military power will side with the smaller claimants.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton irked China this week by urging it to settle the dispute with all parties. Washington is technically neutral, but relies on the sea for shipping lanes that see about half the world’s tanker traffic.

If the United States got involved now, it may err on the side of aggression. US President Obama wants to be seen as a strong leader before his reelection bid in November, Mr. Lin says. “He has to do things that the Republicans cannot use as ammo against him,” he says.

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