The Khmer Times, 24 March 2017
The South China Sea issue is a complex, multi-layered one. It is not only a bilateral and regional issue, but also a global issue due to its strategic location and economic significance to world peace and development.
To effectively manage the disputes, the direct claimant states need to find common ground for bilateral settlement. Asean-China consultation serves as a tool to build trust and confidence and prevent conflicts.
The joint statement between Asean and China on the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) reaffirms the commitment to adopt a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) based on a consensus.
After 15 years of negotiations on the COC, the framework agreement is expected to be concluded this year. The negotiation has been a painstaking process; it requires strategic patience. The process nevertheless is as important as the outcomes of the negotiation.
The COC is expected to be a legally binding agreement compared with the DOC, which was signed in Phnom Penh in 2002 as a collective political will.
China has been cautious of using the word “code,” which has strong legal implications and obligations. A lack of trust and the gap between words and actions have prevented related parties from having meaningful negotiations and reaching a consensus.
The COC framework agreement, although it will be not as substantive and legally rich as expected, will be a critical step towards the conclusion of the COC and a milestone in strengthening trust between the direct claimants and enhancing the Asean-China partnership.
The improved relations between China and the Philippines, the rotating chair of Asean this year, and between China and Vietnam create a favorable and conductive environment for China and Asean to reach an agreement on some the core elements of the COC.
A peaceful settlement of disputes and the principles of international laws including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea are stressed, while trust and confidence building measures will be enhanced through hotline communication and CUES (Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea).
Last year, Asean and China issued a joint statement on CUES in the South China Sea with the aim of improving the operational safety of naval ships and naval aircraft in the air and at sea and to ensure mutual trust among the parties.
CUES serves as a means to reduce the risk of strategic miscalculations that potentially lead to conflicts. However, it is a non-binding agreement and applies to the navies, not coast guards.
Hotline communications among the coast guards is needed to promote maritime safety and common understanding on maritime law enforcement.
In February, China and the Philippines discussed the establishment of a direct communication line between the coast guards of the two countries.
Some Asean members have suggested expanding CUES to include air-to-air encounters in the South China Sea to avoid an unsafe encounter in international airspace. It remains unknown whether China is agreeable to this.
The South China Sea dispute is a long-term issue which requires a long-term strategic calculation and approach and collective efforts.
In the short and medium term, China and Asean should be able to build functional and sustainable confidence-building measures and preventive diplomacy.
The COC is not projected to resolve territorial disputes, but to serve as a critical mechanism to build trust and confidence, to prevent and manage conflicts and tensions in the disputed waters.
Asean and China must work closer together to protect the freedom of navigation, the foundations of international peace and prosperity and promote a rules-based maritime order – with the emphasis on the respect and enforcement of international laws.
The extra-regional powers are welcome to play their role if they genuinely work on maintaining freedom of navigation, addressing non-traditional security threats such as piracy, illegal fishing, smuggling and protecting the marine environment.
Capacity building of the literal states on maritime domain awareness, maritime law enforcement and bilateral and multilateral exercises are the key areas of maritime security cooperation.
Strategic and power competition between China and the US in the South China Sea is not conductive for regional dialogue. All Asean member countries are not interested in choosing sides.
If they are forced or coerced to choose sides, then the whole region will again be divided and unstable.
Therefore, healthy and stable China-US ties is the cornerstone of regional peace and development.
China and the US must work together to narrow their differences and expand their areas of common interest and cooperation. They are both responsible for peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific.