Explaining China’s New ‘Commitments’ on the South China Sea

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Explaining China’s New ‘Commitments’ on the South China Sea

At the August ASEAN meetings, China unveiled its “five commitments” on the South China Sea. What changed?

Explaining China’s New ‘Commitments’ on the South China Sea
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ VOA

The 48th ASEAN Ministerial Meetings and related meetings were held from August 4-6, 2015. However, Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, made the biggest impression on August 3, just before the meetings proper. He called a press conference to announce that China would keep five commitments on the South China Sea issue. These commitments are as follows: (1) maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea, (2) peacefully solving disputes through negotiation and consultation, (3) controlling differences through rules and regulations, (4) maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight in the area, (5) gaining mutual benefits through cooperation.

What do these five commitments mean for the South China Sea issue?

First, the five commitments developed from and improve upon China’s “dual-track approach.” This approach, which was announced in August 2014, was stated as follows: disputes will be solved by countries that are directly involved through friendly negotiations, and the peace and stability of the South China Sea will be maintained by China and ASEAN countries. At its core, the approach states that negotiations on the South China Sea disputes can be performed under a multilateral framework, and that ASEAN can be involved in the South China Sea issue. This significant adjustment to the South China Sea policy is an insightful motivation to hold consultations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea, as approved during the 2013 Suzhou conference on the issue. However, countless storms have occurred around the South China Sea in the year since the “dual-track approach” was announced, and thus simply highlighting these two points will be insufficient. China must completely state its position.

China insists on solving disputes through negotiations between countries that are directly involved, and opposes the hyping of disputes through multilateral activities. Consistent with the provisions of the 298th article of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Chinese government submitted its written statement to the secretary-general of the United Nations on August 25, 2006. This statement indicates that the Chinese government does not accept any international judicial or arbitral jurisdiction stipulated in Section 2, Part 15 of UNCLOS for any dispute mentioned in clauses 1(a), 1(b), and 1(c) if the Article 298 of UNCLOS (e.g., disputes involving maritime delimitation, territory, and military activities).

The five commitments stated by Wang, reiterate this position. The statement is not only a response to the Philippine arbitration case, but also a warning to other countries that claim territorial sovereignty over the region who might want to follow in the footsteps of the Philippines.

Meanwhile, the five commitments request the involvement of countries outside the region to constructively support nations that are directly involved, and oppose behavior that is not conducive to solving disputes, such as provoking confrontations, adopting double standards, and making malicious speculations. Therefore, Wang emphasized that China would firmly maintain the general stability of the South China Sea region and would not allow any country to spoil it.

Third, the five commitments show that China and the United States have overlapping interests on the South China Sea issue. The United States declares that its interests in the South China Sea are to maintain peace and stability in the area, to see disputes solved peacefully, and to uphold freedom of navigation. These three points are also reflected in the five commitments. Therefore, the United States will find it difficult to keep up its pretenses that China does not share these values.

Notably, the established difference between the positions of China and the United States is reflected mainly in their understandings of the freedom of navigation. The United States (along with the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and several other developed countries, as well as the former Soviet Union) believes that the rights of the coastal states within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) are limited to the economic sphere, and that the freedom of navigation of non-coastal states in the EEZ includes the right to conduct military activities. That is, with respect to military activities, the EEZ is the same as the open sea. The United States even coined the term “international waters” to refer to the open sea and the EEZ.

However, China and many developing countries believe that the right to conduct military activities in an EEZ is not included within the scope of freedom of navigation. Nevertheless, with the development of its maritime capabilities, China is gradually adjusting its position. As indicated by the Sino-Russian joint military exercises in the Mediterranean Sea (which includes various EEZs) in May, and by the recent passage of Chinese vessels near the Aleutian Islands, China and the United States’ positions are converging. Theoretically, joint military exercises of the United States and the Philippines could move through China’s EEZ as long as the exercises remained at least 12 nautical miles away from China’s Hainan Island. Similarly, the Sino-Russian navies could also move through the U.S. EEZ just over 12 nm from San Diego on the United States’ west coast. Naturally, to demonstrate due regard for UNCLOS, powerful nations generally avoid taking such steps.

Finally, the five commitments protect the positions of both China and the ASEAN countries. The response to South China Sea disputes involves two tracks: (1) expanding cooperation and increasing common interests, and (2) resolving disputes and controlling differences. China has focused on the former for a long time; ASEAN claimants have stressed the latter.

During the 2013 Suzhou conference, China’s position was expressed as follows: a code of conduct in the South China Sea region could be negotiated; however, rational prospects should be identified to reach the agreement. China said that the starting point should be specific functional areas in the implementation of the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, to gain experience for the code of conduct standards. Furthermore, China stated that all parties should avoid haste in order to succeed.

Since the dual-track approach was presented, China has slightly changed its position. The speech of Premier Li Keqiang during the ASEAN Summit in November 2014 and the Sino-Vietnamese Joint Communiqué released during the visit of General Security Nguyen Phu Trong in April both mentioned that the parties could complete a code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea region through friendly negotiations. The five commitments affirm this position, while also indicating that we should continue to achieve a “win-win” situation through cooperation.

In fact, during the 9th Senior Officials Meeting held in Tianjin last July, considerable progress has been achieved in the COC negotiations between China and ASEAN countries. Such progress includes: (1) reviewing and adopting the second consensus document in the South China Sea COC negotiation; (2) deciding to start a new platform to discuss important and complicated issues, including sorting out common elements to prepare the draft of the framework; and (3) formally authorizing a joint working team to discuss and develop the working method for the COC negotiations.

During the 10+1 ministerial meetings held on August 5 of this year, Wang proposed a new set of initiatives to his ASEAN counterparts to maintain peace in the South China Sea region. These initiatives are as follows: (1) the countries in the South China Sea region must effectively and completely carry out the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, accelerate the negotiation on code of conduct in the South China Sea region, and positively discuss preventive measures for marine risk management and control; (2) the countries outside the region must support the aforementioned efforts of the regional countries, and not commit actions that may cause regional tension and complexity; and (3) all countries must exercise and maintain freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea area according to international laws.

Subsequently, Mr. Anifah Aman, the foreign minister of Malaysia, which was the host country of the last ASEAN summit, stated in an August 6 press conference that the 48th ASEAN Ministerial Meetings had reached consensus on the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the acceleration of the COC negotiations.

Notably, the United States seems to lack sensitivity with regard to these issues. On August 7, John Kerry, the secretary of state of the United States, said in a press conference after the Ministerial Meetings that he wondered if China had actually stopped land reclamation in the South China Sea. Kerry appealed to all parties involved to stop reclamation, construction of new buildings, and military activities. Wang had no choice but to respond, telling reporters to fly over the area to see the truth.

Indisputably, the forceful intervention of the United States in the South China Sea issue has become increasingly obvious. This intervention highlights two problems between China and the United States: the lack of strategic mutual trust and positive interactions. The United States worries about being pushed out of Asia in the future and is concerned by the existing situation. It has thus failed to be unbiased in its opinion about China. The United States overemphasizes the South China Sea issue, possibly because it is experiencing “hegemon anxiety.”

However, these insecurities are misplaced. China is aware of the gap between it and the United States. Wang clearly said when he accepted a Los Angeles Times interview in June that the goal of China is to be a middle-income developing country by 2049. However, even then, the gap between China and the United States will remain great.

The five commitments outlined by Wang fully reveal China’s position on the South China Sea issue. These commitments are the latest steps in clarifying its stance. They indicate that China does not want to extend the South China Sea disputes. After all, “One Belt, One Road” is a top-level foreign policy initiative of the Chinese government, and ASEAN is the first hub of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. The dialogues between China and ASEAN countries provide a wide platform for multilateral cooperation. Some of the noises that appeared during the late stage of the 2015 Kuala Lumpur meetings might turn out to be small ripples generated during the early implementation of the five commitments.

Dr. Xue Li is Director of the Department of International Strategy at the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Liu Mingyi graduated with a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.