China, neighbors set up hotlines over island disputes

However, Beijing has rejected US advice to sign a code of conduct for the South China Sea.

Ahim Rani/Reuters
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) forum in Brunei July 1.

China, confident after a recent high-level meeting in the United States and bilateral talks with regional rivals, is ignoring a second round of US advice to sign a code of conduct that could ease the threat of conflict in a crowded, contested tract of Asian ocean.

After protestations last year over US influence in the South China Sea when faced with the same advice rocked ties in the region, Beijing kept quiet about Secretary of State John Kerry’s call Tuesday for a code of conduct with a bloc that includes other countries that claim the same waters.

But Beijing’s inaction this time won't mean a diplomatic spat with Washington or neighbors, political experts say.

“I would doubt we would see as strong a negative reaction,” says Ralph Cossa, president of Pacific Forum CSIS, a think tank in Hawaii. “The [US] South China Sea comments were in an international setting where China was trying very hard not to internationalize the issue.”

China will still decline to sign a code of conduct, analysts expect, despite enjoying some high relations after an upbeat meeting last month between US President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The main reason? China resents the United States for jumping into an Asian dispute.

“China before was worried about the US stepping in, but now, it’s more like ‘why should I do more or give away something?’” says Nathan Liu, international affairs professor at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan.

What's the code about?

The code recommended by Mr. Kerry at an ASEAN forum in Brunei would likely list measures to avoid conflict on the 3.5 million-square-kilometer (1.4 million-square-mile) South China Sea stretching from Taiwan to Singapore.

It would not resolve sovereignty disputes that have pitted China against fellow sea claimants Vietnam and the Philippines since the 1970s. Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan also claim all or part of the South China Sea.

Conflicts left several people dead in the 1970s and 1980s, while a Sino-Philippine standoff over a shoal last year sunk diplomatic relations for months.

“Secretary Kerry stressed the need for adopting a Code of Conduct now, and encouraged all parties to quickly move towards substantive talks,” the US state department says on its website. (Want to know more about this process? Read up on past efforts to get China to side a code)

China and ASEAN, a bloc that includes four sea claimants, pledged in 2002 to resolve sea disputes peacefully but never followed up with a formal agreement. They have said the issue will be revisited later this year.

What's China doing?

But Beijing is pursuing conflict avoidance bilaterally, in the South as well as East China Sea, to prevent giving up too much power in a multilateral deal and to promote a better relationship with its neighbors. It has set up a fishing-dispute hotline with Vietnam and a naval hotline with Japan, its chief East China Sea rival, for example.

The Japanese coast guard said Monday it had spotted four Chinese ships entering its ocean territorial claim, but the ships left shortly. Tokyo and Beijing are talking at low levels about further dispute resolutions, some analysts say.

Washington also hopes to avoid the South China Sea dispute as long as key US shipping lanes remain unthreatened and China doesn’t gain too much power in the region, experts say.  US officials will ultimately accept any outcomes that spare conflict, experts believe.

“[China] doesn’t want to follow US suggestions, but they will act on their own,” says Lin Chong-pin, strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan. “They are big brother in Asia.”

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