China Advances South China Sea Negotiations, Talks to Blinken at ASEAN Meeting

The Lede: ASEAN and China’s top diplomat Wang Yi agreed on Thursday to expedite the negotiations to establish a code of conduct and nonaggression pact in the South China Sea to better manage the disputed waterway. Wang also spoke to Blinken at the sidelines of the ASEAN meeting.

What We Know:

  • ASEAN and China adopted a plan called the Guidelines for Accelerating the Early Conclusion of an Effective and Substantive Code of Conduct that aims to speed up negotiations to establish mutually agreed upon rules and agreement for nonaggression in the disputed South China Sea, where overlapping claims have long caused disagreement over military activity and fishing rights. The guidelines stipulate that the code of conduct negotiations should be completed before the fall of 2026.
  • Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi emphasized the renewed momentum to advance those aims in line with the spirit of inclusivity, openness, international law, dialogue, and collaboration.
  • China has proposed that the code of conduct should restrict the presence and activities of foreign forces in the South China Sea, but U.S. allies involved in the talks voiced opposition.
  • China’s top foreign diplomat Wang Yi attended the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting in place of Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who was unable to attend due to health reasons. Wang also met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the sidelines of the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting.

The Background: The South China Sea is one of the world’s busiest waterways that also has abundant fish, oil, and gas resources. ASEAN has been trying to coordinate a legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea for years. China, Taiwan, and four ASEAN states – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam all have overlapping claims over different parts of the South China Sea. China and the ASEAN bloc are mutually the largest trading partners of one another with trade reaching $975 billion between them in 2022. China also represents the fourth-largest source of foreign direct investment in ASEAN. Chinese FDI in the bloc reached $13.8 billion in 2021.

Likely Outcomes:

  • ASEAN and China may come to the negotiating table, but it remains to be seen whether they can untangle the overlapping claims in the South China Sea. China’s wide claims over the disputed waterway and buildup of its military presence may give it leverage in shaping future rules, but Beijing has not demonstrated much flexibility in conceding what it considers part of its territory.
  • The U.S. and its allies will continue to advocate for their presence and influence in the South China Sea, but ASEAN members may consider rethinking that aspect if China would budge. A code of conduct may better facilitate trade and improved relations among countries with regard to the currently disputed waterway, but the US.-China rivalry hangs in the backdrop of this regional issue that ASEAN and China appear ready to start resolving.
  • Further incidents involving fishing vessels in the South China Sea or close-calls between military units could derail any progress that may be made in these negotiations. Given the heightened tensions in recent months, the probability of such incidents is currently more elevated.


“China welcomes the successful conclusion of the second reading of the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, and supports all parties in accelerating the formation of the guidelines, with the hope that the guidelines will continue playing a constructive role…China is willing to work with Asean to cherish the fruits of what we have achieved, hold on to the correct direction of the relationship’s development, and continually deepen the strategic partnership.” - Wang Yi, State Councilor of China

“We want China to be a staunch Asean partner in maintaining an open and inclusive regional architecture. Only through this can we attain win-win cooperation for the sake of common peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.” - Retno Marsudi, foreign minister of Indonesia

“The Secretary used the meeting to advance U.S. interests and values, to directly raise concerns shared by the United States and allies and partners regarding PRC actions, and advocate for progress on transnational challenges that affect people in the United States, the PRC, and around the world.” - Matt Miller, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State

Good Reads:

China and Asean agree on guidelines to expedite South China Sea negotiations (Strait Times)

China and ASEAN agree to try to conclude nonaggression pact on sea feud in 3 years (AP)

Blinken meets top Chinese diplomat on sidelines of ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting (CNN)