Beating the South China Sea Phoenix


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.            

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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.

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