South China Sea is not a zero-sum game: The Nation columnist

A file photo showing alleged on-going reclamation by China on the Mischief Reef in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, on May 11, 2015.
A file photo showing alleged on-going reclamation by China on the Mischief Reef in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea, west of Palawan, on May 11, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

Surakiart Sathirathai 
The Nation/Asia News Network 

The South China Sea issue should not be allowed to disturb the promise for further stability and the growing prosperity that we have worked tirelessly to achieve in Asia, or further jeopardise or politicise ongoing efforts toward resolution. 

We have a responsibility to make sure the dispute does not harm the realisation of theAsean Community. 

We have a responsibility to make sure the dispute does not disturb ongoing negotiations of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), our relationship with China and indeed Asean itself. 

The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) may have played certain roles towards averting any military actions by claimant states. 

And the ongoing Asean efforts to conclude the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea may need to find a fruitful solution. 

But evidently, the South China Sea remains largely an area of troubled waters. 

Both the general principles of international law and the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) 1982 provide legal basis for joint development arrangements between disputed parties while parties remain unable to reach a maritime delimitation agreement. 

Examples are abundant in several parts of the world where this has been the case. 

The Thai-Malaysian Joint Development Area Agreement for the joint exploration and exploitation of oil and gas in the yet to be delimited southern part of the Gulf of Thailand, now in operation for almost 40 years, also stands as a testimony to the use of functional cooperation in the absence of agreed maritime boundary. 

More recently, Malaysia and Vietnam signed an MOU for oil and gas exploration and development in 1992. Australia and East Timor signed the Timor Sea Treaty which established the Joint Petroleum Development Area between both countries. 

And indeed in the early 2000s, China and Vietnam together delimited their boundary and signed an agreement for a joint fishing area in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Outside of Southeast Asia, Japan and South Korea agreed in 1974 on joint development of the southern part of their continental shelf and we can also take lessons from the Antarctic Treaty, and similar successful functional cooperation models in the Baltic Sea, the Mediterranean, and in the North Sea in the Atlantic Ocean. 

Functional cooperation thus emerges as a mechanism for cooperation and peace that can sit above and catalyse the necessary cooperation and trust required to commit to disentangle the differences in the South China Sea. 

It may be granted that the phrase "functional cooperation" may be too vague. Suffice it to say though that functional cooperation constitutes any joint development cooperation in any field that each pair of claimant states have enough comfort level to agree upon. 

Functional cooperation is not a solution in itself. 

But it provides another track to preserve peace and avert future armed confrontations. 

It can run parallel with sovereignty negotiations and the attempts to conclude the COC. Functional cooperation dialogue could become a confidence building measures for the other 2 parallel tracks as well. 

Lack of progress, muddling through or continuing the current stand-off will cause all sides to dig-in further to consolidate their already entrenched positions. 

It would further fuel the vicious cycle of ultra-national narratives. It would hinder an amicable solution to the dispute and threaten to increase the growing brinkmanship at sea. 

Thus, collectively it is time for all of us to step back and to take stock of where we are and what we want to achieve moving forward. 

The situation at sea must be depoliticised and cooled down in order for us to build a shared vision for cooperation moving forward. 

There is no one single comprehensive solution for a complex situation, but functional cooperation offers that way forward through cooperation. 

Areas for cooperation can range from fishery cooperation, management of sustainable fisheries, joint scientific research, environmental protection, research on marine life, joint investment ventures, resource exploration and exploitation, humanitarian and disaster relief, establishment of protected marine nature reserves, joint management of maritime navigation, and joint tourism cooperation. 

In all these areas, any cooperation will become the benefit of the people and the livelihood of people of all countries. It also fits with provisions in Unclos that allow "provisional arrangements of a practical nature".

Functional cooperation is not the final solution to the disputes. 

Functional cooperation may not solve the overlapping claims and sovereignty. 

Functional cooperation may not eliminate all the differences between claimant states over the Spratlys and Paracels. 

The benefits of functional cooperation do not focus on the geopolitical statehood or governments. But to put in place functional cooperation that is acceptable by claimant states, at least, is to allow all sides, states and people alike, to reap some benefits from peace and the resources therein and create a less confrontational atmosphere between claimant states. 

It is also heartening that no matter the outcome of the arbitration award at The Hague, in the past week the new Philippines Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay announced that President Rodrigo Duterte's administration would seek to pursue joint development in areas of overlapping economic zone claims with China. 

This is an encouraging early sign and hopefully it is seen by all sides as a first step towards more concrete cooperation. 

The South China Sea is vast and rich with the promise of resources and fisheries, and is one of the most frequently sailed passages on earth, carrying more than half of the world's merchant fleet tonnage. 

Yet, in so many ways, its wealth is fast becoming a curse. Geopolitics and competition threaten to upend the rise to prosperity we have all enjoyed in East Asia. 

Functional cooperation can build confidence, improve the atmosphere and increase the comfort levels needed before claims on sovereignty can be discussed. 

No matter our standpoint, no one here wants to see the South China Sea crumble into conflict. 

The writer is the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council chairman professor and a former deputy prime minister and foreign minister of Thailand.