When foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) met in Manila last weekend, the timing seemed just right to tackle the simmering tension on the Korean peninsula. Pyongyang's ongoing nuclear tests even prompted the UN to issue sanctions against the country.
But the issue that arguably affects Asean the most is the series of disputes over the South China Sea, and the grouping did well to achieve a consensus agreement on a joint communique calling for non-militarisation and self-restraint in the area.
Even though the communique made no mention of the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration's ruling that invalidated most of China's maritime claims based on its nine-dash line map, the statement was more strongly worded than the watered-down version published in Laos last year.
Some Asean ministers also voiced concern about land-reclamation activities which have eroded trust and confidence, thereby increasing tension and undermining peace, security and stability.
China has been sensitive to even veiled references to its seven reclaimed reefs, three of which have runways, missile batteries, radars and the capability to accommodate fighter jets.
Another symbolic but notable achievement was the agreement between Asean and China on the framework of the Code of Conduct (COC) in their effort to prevent disputes in the South China Sea.
While some Asean nations, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, wanted the COC to be legally binding, China wanted it to operate on a freer basis. In the end, the framework was agreed with no mention of it being binding or not.
Since the agreement does not specifically mention whether the COC is a legally binding document, it does not seem much different from the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which has failed to prevent tension escalating in the area. Though none are direct claimant countries, the United States, Australia and Japan as Asean dialogue partners released a statement calling for a legally binding, meaningful, effective and consistent COC in accordance with international law. The three countries have criticised the Chinese claims, which they said pose a threat to freedom of navigation and overflight in the area, which sees about US$5 trillion (166 trillion baht) of goods pass through annually.
Four Asean members -- the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam -- have competing claims with China on this strategic route. While Beijing has built several man-made islands in the area that can house troops and weapons, it has been insisting on a gentlemen's agreement, or a bilateral deal with individual countries, and has opposed internationalising the issue.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said on Wednesday formal talks with Asean will begin this year if no outsiders interfere on the matter. It was referring to the United States and other countries that have called for China to respect international laws, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Asean and China may say the framework is only a guide for how the COC will be established, but it is unclear where the negotiations will lead. Perhaps they will follow the same model as the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which has failed to prevent tensions in the disputed waters.
Clearly, no country attracts more attention than China in the South China Sea disputes due to a number of reasons, including its expansive claims, use of force over the islands in the past, and its growing naval capabilities.
Since the mid-1990s, China has increasingly resorted to delaying tactics in handling these maritime and territorial disputes. It wishes to focus on consolidating its claim to certain maritime rights and deter others from consolidating their own claims. Since the mid-2000s, China has ramped up efforts to consolidate its position through diplomacy and military means.
Such delaying tactics, without resorting to major armed conflict, also prevent the escalation of tension in the South China Sea. While China remains a threat to smaller nations due to its enormous economic and military power, it is treading cautiously to avoid major conflict.
Over the years, Asean's position on this issue has been tenuous. At times, the grouping has been unable to formulate a consensus policy. This is partly because not all 10 members are claimants to the South China Sea. Moreover, some members have overlapping claims. Some of the Asean states are also heavily dependent on China for trade and investment, which in turn makes it difficult for them to speak out openly against Beijing.
While the deal on the framework of the COC could be seen as progress, will the claimant countries be able to reach a similar agreement on maritime or territorial disputes? This remains in doubt. But the more pressing question is who will enforce the COC in the event of non-compliance by claimant parties, especially if it is China?
Nehginpao Kipgen, PhD, is Assistant Professor and Executive Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University.