A Chinese Perspective on Establishing a Cooperation Mechanism in the South China Sea
Despite good news and positive signals in the South China Sea, a regional cooperation mechanism is essential to shape a new form of governance that will be acceptable to and beneficial for the parties concerned. The Arctic Council, as a relatively mature model with a successful practice record, may provide an important example.
Since mid-2016, the situation in the South China Sea, as a whole, has remained stable and continued to develop in a positive direction. As a result of China’s efforts, claimants of the South China Sea are now on the correct path towards peace, resolving their disputes through negotiation and cooperation. Nevertheless, we must maintain a cautiously optimistic attitude, guarding against lingering uncertainties that may still stir up the situation. In order to maintain the current positive momentum and create a more favorable environment for cooperation and development in this region, coastal countries should now consider establishing a new cooperation mechanism in the South China Sea.
Recent Developments in the South China Sea
Since 2010, the South China Sea issue has ranked high on any listing of the world’s geopolitical hotspots, where fractious territorial disputes have very nearly pushed the region to the edge of armed conflict on multiple occasions. However, since mid-2016, the waters of the South China Sea have been fairly tranquil. There have been no major incidents or crises, and more often than not, good news concerning collaboration and cooperation among the claimants has emerged.
As a direct result of several agreements reached by ASEAN and China during the ASEAN meetings and the East Asia Summit held in Vientiane,
Laos in September 2016, there has been a systematic ebbing of tensions in the South China Sea. The ASEAN countries and China adopted the Joint Statement on the Application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) in the South China Sea as well as the Guidelines for Hotline Communications among Senior Officials of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs in Response to Maritime Emergencies. They also called for a full implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and a continuation of negotiations aimed at the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC).
On May 18-19, 2017, following progress made during the 23rd CHINA-ASEAN Senior Officials’ Consultation and the 14th Senior Officials’ Meeting on the Implementation of the DOC held in the Chinese city of Guiyang, senior officials from China and ASEAN countries agreed on a framework for the COC. All parties also agreed to continue to implement the DOC and reaffirmed plans to resolve disputes through negotiation, manage differences with a regional framework of regulations, deepen maritime cooperation, and move forward the negotiations on the COC to safeguard peace and stability of the region.1 In August, during the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting and Related Meetings held in Manila, foreign ministers from ASEAN states and China endorsed the framework for the COC. During the 20th ASEAN-CHINA Summit held in Manila on November 13, leaders of China and ASEAN countries formally announced the start of negotiations on the COC.
The positive trajectory of the China-philippine relationship is another significant step forward in the South China Sea situation. After the Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague issued its ruling in favor of the Philippines on July 12, 2016, the newly installed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte decided to toss the ruling aside, achieving immediate results in the form of a breakthrough in China-philippine relations. During Duterte’s visit to China in October 2016, leaders from both countries agreed to handle maritime
disputes in an appropriate manner. In recognition of these efforts, China made some arrangement for the Filipino fishermen’s fishing in “the relevant part of waters of Huangyan Island.”2 On May 19, 2017, the first meeting of the China-philippine bilateral consultation on the South China Sea was held in Guiyang. With a common desire for constructive interaction, the two parties reaffirmed their commitment to address territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, and held discussions regarding the promotion of next-step practical maritime cooperation and the possible establishment of technical working groups. On July 25, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with President Duterte in the Philippines, and the two sides expressed interest in joint exploitation of natural resources in the disputed South China Sea.
Causes for Recent Cooling Down
Overall, the contentious issues that once beleaguered the South China Sea have cooled down and stabilized. However, it is instructive to review the causes of this respite and ask ourselves whether anything has really changed and whether the lull can continue.3
First, since the Arbitral Tribunal issued its ruling in July 2016 (which was overwhelmingly in favor of the Philippines), China, in terms of its relations with ASEAN, has made great efforts to reverse the narrative and justify its legitimate claims and actions in the South China Sea. China has advocated for the implementation of the DOC, pushed forward negotiations on the COC, and fully embraced the hand that President Duterte extended. China also continues to promote the dual-track approach, wherein disputes are addressed properly through negotiation and consultation among countries directly concerned, allowing China and
ASEAN countries to work together towards peace and stability in the South China Sea. At the same time, as of mid-2016, China’s reclamation of some South China Sea islands came to an end. Through these measures, China is trying to convey goodwill to the region and persuade other claimants to return to the negotiating table.
Second, the Philippines and Vietnam, the two countries once most outspoken against China in this dispute, have adjusted their South China Sea policies with new leaders in office. These countries understand that escalating the situation is not beneficial to the interests of any party, and that continued provocation would lead the region into further conflict.
In particular, the new government of the Philippines has dramatically changed its policy and now considers a cooperative partnership with China as its top priority. Under President Benigno Aquino III, the Philippines adopted an overwhelmingly pro-us foreign policy, and came into confrontation with China following the Huangyan Island and the Ren’ai Reef incidents. The subsequent international arbitration unilaterally initiated by the Philippines further led to an unprecedented nadir in bilateral ties. Since assuming office, President Duterte has embraced an independent and pragmatic foreign policy, and in a bid to put the derailed relationship back on track, chose China as the destination for his first overseas visit outside of ASEAN. As a result of the change in Duterte’s approach to the dispute, the atmosphere of Sino-philippine relations have reached levels of positivity not seen since the mid-2000s.4
Third, inaction by the United States in the South China Sea in the latter stages of the Obama administration and the first few months of the Trump presidency has allowed for hitherto unseen levels of open dialogue and unencumbered regional dispute resolution. Since taking office, domestic politics have occupied the majority of President Trump’s attention. During the first year of his administration, he has failed to deliver an ideal performance in the diplomatic field. In a region that his predecessor
President Barack Obama placed such a high value on, President Trump, lacking an Asia-pacific policy team, can hardly articulate, let alone formulate a regional strategy or policy. Moreover, it is said that in order to get China to tighten the screws on North Korea, the Trump administration restrained itself from provoking China in the South China Sea.5 The White House, it was revealed, had refused to give the green light to Pacific Command’s request to conduct further Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) on three separate occasions.6
Uncertainties Likely to Stir up Instability
Although good news and positive signals have emerged in the region, fundamental disputes and contradictions have not yet been resolved. None of the Southeast Asian claimants has altered claims in the South China Sea, and most of the factors that have led to the current cooling down mentioned above are not sustainable. The situation in the South China Sea is still fraught with uncertainties.
One major uncertainty concerns the domestic political situation of relevant ASEAN countries. Within the governments of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries, there are differing attitudes, opinions, and policies regarding China’s role both in the region and within their respective nations. For example, the internal disagreements within the Philippine administration on policies pursued vis-à-vis China and the United States are clearly visible in the sometimes contradictory statements between the president and the Ministry of Defense, which has revealed the limits of the Sino-philippine rapprochement. And irrespective of Duterte’s pledge to “separate” from America and pursue alliance-like relationships with China and Russia, the United States remains the Philippines’ indispensable
security partner, as the violent siege at Marawi in Mindanao attests.7
Southeast Asian countries are still sticking to a balanced foreign policy between China and the US. The diplomatic interactions among Southeast Asian countries and the Trump government remain relatively frequent, demonstrated by the fact that leaders from Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have all visited the United States in the past year. Southeast Asian countries are visibly concerned about America ignoring the region, and hope that the United States will remain as a regional moderator and security guarantor.
Another important uncertainty is that policies regarding the Asiapacific region in general and the South China Sea more specifically have yet to take shape under the Trump administration. But what is clear is that the
US interests in the South China Sea have not changed, and disagreements between China and America concerning the right of innocent passage through territorial seas and the holding of military activities or operations in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of another country continue to threaten regional stability.
In addition, President Trump has increased military investment into the Asia-pacific region, showing quite clearly that he intends to dominate security within the Asia-pacific region through force. In America’s 2018 budget outline, $54 billion was added to the defense spending,8 a majority of which will be deployed to the Asia-pacific region.
In recent months, America has enhanced military activities in the South China Sea. The US Navy has resumed FONOPS in the region, and the frequency has surpassed even that of the Obama era. At the Shangrila Dialogue in Singapore in early June 2017, US Defense Secretary James Mattis said, “The United States remains committed to protecting the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea, and the ability of countries to exercise those rights in the strategically important East and South China Seas.”9 These words are a familiar refrain, and reflect the fact that as yet there remains no substantial change in US South China Sea policy.
Moreover, since an agreed-upon COC framework has been developed, the negotiation of a final COC text will step into “deep waters.” Defining both the scope of application and the precise nature of the COC will be vital for the successful conclusion of COC negotiations. Disagreement over whether the COC should be legally binding even within ASEAN will restrict future COC negotiations. It is more than likely that the various differences and contradictions between China and ASEAN on issues related to the COC will continue to surface, challenging the mutual trust and confidence between China and ASEAN in the future.
Then Vice Foreign Minister of China Liu Zhenmin at the 14th Senior Officials’ Meeting on the Implementation of the DOC in Guiyang, May 18, 2017. Agreement on a framework for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) by China and ASEAN countries lays solid foundation for future negotiations.