Beating the South China Sea Phoenix

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Beating the South China Sea Phoenix

The guidelines agreed at the ASEAN Regional Forum are a good start in resolving the territorial row between China and Southeast Asian nations.

Last week, with the world watching, a sense of optimism wafted out of the Bali ASEAN Regional Forum meetings.The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China agreed on ‘guidelines’ for implementing their previously agreed 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). Some players, including China, hailed this as a breakthrough. But others agreed with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who said: ‘It was an important first step but only a first step’ and that ASEAN and China should move quickly – even urgently – to an actual code of conduct.

It’s true that the guidelines reveal more by what they don’t say than what they do. Indeed, they lack specifics, timelines and enforceability. They don’t specify what is in dispute and the practical focus is on non-traditional security issues like environmental protection, marine science and transnational crime. Obviously, agreement was difficult to achieve; hence the generalities, ambiguities, emphasis on confidence building and lacunae.

Expectations were unreasonably high, and so from this standpoint criticism is easy. Still, the negotiating process leading up to this unfairly – or at least prematurely – maligned outcome revealed ASEAN and the claimants’ behaviour at their best. There was a lot at stake – ASEAN and China needed to show that they could manage regional disputes more or less by themselves. And they also needed to reassure the world that the South China Sea is safe for commerce. In short, the capability, credibility and relevance of ASEAN security forums were at risk. Also at risk was the long-term hope of a Pax Asia-Pacifica replacing the present Pax Americana.            

Behind the scenes negotiations led by current ASEAN chair Indonesia made considerable progress – a credit to the skills of the diplomats involved. Indeed, Indonesia demonstrated that it can lead – not only to resolve regional disputes, but also Southeast Asia as a whole. ASEAN made a major compromise by agreeing to drop a clause that would mandate that it form an ASEAN position before dealing with China on South China Sea issues. This gesture was important to convince China that the other claimants (Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam) aren’t using ASEAN to ‘gang up’ on it.  

China also deserves considerable credit. It had long resisted the draft guidelines and made a major compromise by agreeing to them. Perhaps it saw the writing on the wall and feared that the disputes were pushing ASEAN toward the United States. Whatever the impetus, China succeeded by its rhetoric and behaviour in reducing tension, at least for the time being.

Vietnam’s political courage and assertiveness were also on full display – challenging China at every turn, tit for tat.  And the Philippines also demonstrated political courage. But, more important, it demonstrated that international law can help make relations more equal and give pause to powerful nations. Together, with the involvement of the United States, China was put on the political defensive.

Over the last year, a series of aggressive incidents involving Chinese patrol boats followed by soothing official statements had left many puzzled and concerned about a ‘bullying’ China. The incidents involved cutting of seismometer cables towed by a Vietnamese sanctioned survey vessel operating on Vietnam’s claimed continental shelf, and harassment of a Philippine sanctioned survey vessel, as well as numerous alleged ‘intrusions’ in the Reed Bank area claimed by the Philippines as part of its EEZ. Worse, China responded to frenetic protests from Vietnam and the Philippines by warning that any exploration in the Spratly area without its consent is a violation of its jurisdiction and sovereignty. This real time link between its stark and sweeping position and its enforcement sent a chill down the spines of ASEAN claimants and drew US attention. The United States, having confronted China and cleverly conflated the disputes with its concerns regarding ‘freedom of navigation’ via Clinton’s speech at the ARF meeting in Hanoi in July 2010, was only too happy to help, at least verbally and with signals militaries understand.

Vietnam responded to China’s actions in kind with vitriolic rhetoric and military exercises matching those of China. The Philippines also broke all of China’s ‘rules.’ It internationalized the issue by appealing to both the United Nations and the United States for help. It publicized the issue, revealing details of the negotiations. And it challenged China’s nine-dashed line claim by suggesting the jurisdictional issue be decided by the arbitration process provided by the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which they have both ratified. 

This past year was supposed to have seen negotiations to transform the DOC into an official, legally binding, enforceable code.  But leading up to the summits, the situation looked likely to get worse before it got better. Still planned are more Vietnamese and Philippine-sanctioned surveys by Western oil companies and even exploratory drilling in areas claimed by China. Clinton has warned that the unresolved issues threaten peace and stability in Southeast Asia.

Given this context, and the rise in political tension, the positive outcome of the forum promotes hope. There is movement in the right direction – even if it is small and fragile. Of course, it’s only one step of many necessary to truly put these Phoenix-like disputes to rest. But the alternative is too messy and miserable to contemplate. Although the interim product may be imperfect and incomplete, this crisis brought out the best in many of the countries involved. That bodes well both for the eventual settlement of the disputes, and for Asia’s future.

Mark Valencia is a Senior Research Associate with the National Bureau of Asian Research.