Our Head of ASEAN Studies Program, A Ibrahim Almuttaqi was quoted in South China Morning Post's on 'Coronavirus grabs headlines, but South China Sea will be Asean's focus.' Read below for the full article:

Coronavirus grabs headlines, but South China Sea will be Asean's focus

- Leaders of the Southeast Asian bloc and China are to meet on Friday
-Talks are likely to focus on recent clashes and code of conduct negotiations that have stalled over Beijing's demand to restrict US activity in the waters

Asean leaders gathering on Friday will publicly play up their plans for post-coronavirus recovery efforts, but behind closed doors much of their focus will be on disputes over the South China Sea, analysts believe.

In particular, Vietnam - which will chair the meeting - will push hard for the bloc to take a tougher stance on China's recent assertive actions in the waters, according to Southeast Asian analysts.

Hanoi had been expected to make progress on a code of conduct between the 10-nation bloc and China to govern the sea a key plank of its agenda during its 12-month chairmanship, but that plan has been scuttled by the coronavirus pandemic.

Friday's meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders - postponed since April - will be conducted via videoconferencing. While the scheduled biannual summit did not go ahead in April due to the pandemic, the leaders held an extraordinary meeting, also by video conferencing, the same month to address their response to the health crisis.

Observers said a series of episodes in the disputed waters involving China and various claimants in recent months - in the midst of the pandemic - meant the leaders were likely to discuss the matter at length during the summit.

Nazia Hussain, a senior analyst at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said Hanoi would "be conscious to make sure the most pressing items on their agenda follow through" after having had its chairmanship "overshadowed" by the public health crisis.

Le Hong Hiep, a Vietnam foreign policy researcher with the ISEAS Yusof-Ishak Institute, expected Hanoi to continue with its long-held stance of seeking "strong language" on the South China Sea in the group's post-summit joint statement. "There's little reason to think that Vietnam will act differently this time, especially given its Asean chairmanship this year," Le said.

Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have each experienced confrontations of some kind between their vessels and Chinese government ones.

In the case of Malaysia, a drillship contracted by the state oil company Petronas for months operated close to the Chinese survey ship Haiyang Dizhi 8.

Analysts had said the Chinese vessel was deployed to interrupt the operations of the drillship and its supply vessels, in a signal from Beijing that it was unhappy about the Southeast Asian country's unilateral energy exploration in the waters.

China claims almost the entirety of the waters as part of its controversial "nine-dash line".

That boundary is challenged by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - along with the self governed island of Taiwan.

The Southeast Asian claimants say the Chinese boundary encroaches on their territorial waters as set out by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas, while Taiwan - viewed by Beijing as a renegade province - has a similar claim as the Chinese mainland.

The seventh party in the dispute is Indonesia.

The northern reaches of the exclusive economic zone of its Natuna islands is within China's nine-dash line, though Jakarta insists it is an "interested party" and not a claimant in the dispute as its sovereignty over the waters is unquestionable.

"I think these countries will want to see progress in coming up with a viable code of conduct and therefore are most likely to offer their backing to ensure stability at a time when regional tensions are mounting," said Nazia.

While the recent confrontations meant the claimant countries were more likely to be on the same page as Vietnam on tough language regarding the sea dispute - usually Hanoi stands alone with its aggressive stance - the question was "how tough is 'tough'," Le said.

On the code of conduct talks, the analysts were split on whether negotiations would speed up when they resumed later this year.

Senior officials from the 10 countries and China will meet on July 1 to discuss the resumption of the talks, and Indonesia's Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi - speaking to reporters on Wednesday - said progress in the negotiations would ease tensions in the waters.

Officials last year completed an early milestone in the talks: a so-called "first reading" of a single draft negotiating text - which represents a place holder agreement that all parties can add to and subtract from as well as refine.

Ian Storey, editor of the Contemporary Southeast Asia journal, said the inability of officials to meet earlier this year meant "China's already unrealistic deadline for the code of conduct to be signed before the end of 2021" would not be met.

At the core of the talks is the question of how binding the agreement will be, and if Southeast Asian countries will accede to a key Chinese demand: that external players such as the United States should be barred from military or commercial activities in the waters.

The likes of Vietnam, which has strengthened bilateral ties with the US in recent years, have balked at this demand.

Le, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute researcher, said most Asean countries including Vietnam wanted a "substantive and effective code of conduct, and not a "political document" like the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea - the precursor agreement that led to the code of conduct talks.

He added that while China wanted to achieve a code of conduct "to show its goodwill and to prove that it is a responsible stakeholder in regional affairs", it did not want an agreement that was "too powerful or substantive to the extent that its assertive actions in the South China Sea will be significantly constrained."

Storey said: "In the main [the code of conduct talks are] a contest of wills between China and Vietnam. Neither has achieved the upper hand yet."

As the pandemic raged on, "a point of discussion could be how to better coordinate an Asean response" as the regional grouping had come under fire for its initial haphazard handling of the pandemic, said Nazia.

Indonesian analyst A. Ibrahim Almuttaqi believed the pandemic would dominate the summit.

A key difficulty in coordinating recovery efforts would be that the 10 countries were "at different stages in their responses to the pandemic and have so far taken different approaches that have led to mixed results," said the head of the Asean Studies Programme at The Habibie Centre in Jakarta.

"I think on Indonesia's part, it will try to push its agenda to ensure that any vaccine is accessible for all countries, both rich and poor," he said.

[This article was first published in South China Morning Post on 25th June 2020 and can be found at: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3090601/coronavirus-headlines-south-china-sea-will-be-aseans-focus]

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