Shangri-La Dialogue: What China and Asean can do to maintain stability in South China Sea

The situation in the South China Sea has stabilised in the past two years, thanks to the joint efforts of China and Asean to resolve disputes through consultation and cooperation.

Now, in an effort to reinforce what has been achieved, both sides are actively working on establishing a Code of Conduct (COC).

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said last November at the 44th Singapore Lecture that Beijing hopes to complete talks on a COC for the South China Sea within three years, clinching a final deal that will lead to enduring peace in the region.

In addition to such efforts, China and the Philippines have established a bilateral consultation mechanism on the South China Sea, a joint coastguard committee on maritime cooperation and signed a memorandum of understanding on joint oil and gas development. Separately, China and Vietnam have agreed to explore various means of cooperation, including joint development, in the South China Sea. China, the Philippines and Vietnam are among countries that have conflicting claims in parts of the waterway.

Despite the progress made and the positive moves to ease tensions, the situation remains complicated and is vulnerable to destabilisation by a number of disruptive factors.

One prominent factor is the United States and its increasing rivalry with China; this can be seen in its regularising of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. The increasing involvement of other extra-regional powers is another factor. The domestic situation of claimant states could also potentially affect efforts to resolve territorial disputes. Given the circumstances, China and Asean should continue to play a key stabilising role in the South China Sea and stick to the general direction of dialogue and cooperation.

At this year's Boao Forum for Asia annual conference, Mr Yi Xianliang, director of the department of boundary and ocean affairs of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, pointed out that priority should be given to the security of the littoral states of the South China Sea and their people. Cooperation is the main method to defend and promote security. It is in the interests of the littoral states to join efforts to safeguard security through cooperation. In other words, China and Asean member states should put aside differences, focus on common interests and develop cooperation in various fields.

These are some of the ways it can be done. First, China and Asean should accelerate the COC negotiation process. In the past several years, China and Asean have made great progress in COC negotiations. With the adoption of the COC single draft negotiating text last year, the consultation has now entered into what might be termed the "deep water" phase. There are some tough issues that will have to be tackled, including whether the code will be legally binding and what is the geographic scope covered by the code.

The proper way forward is to exclude external interference, narrow differences and expand consensus as they work towards a final text that is acceptable to both parties and is helpful to the establishment of a regional order or rules that align with the common interests of regional countries.

Second, China and Asean should promote pragmatic maritime cooperation and aim for greater progress and even breakthroughs. They have talked for some time about cooperation in less sensitive fields, such as fishing, maritime environment protection, search and rescue, maritime scientific research, and oil and gas exploration.

The improvement of bilateral relations between China and South-east Asian claimant states provides favourable conditions for enhancing cooperation in such areas. For example, China and Asean can discuss the possibility of conducting joint surveys of fishing resources, and share the information and adopt common conservation measures; these measures will help establish a fishing cooperation mechanism among countries surrounding the South China Sea.

Another important area for cooperation is maritime law enforcement. China and Asean can strengthen coastguard cooperation through ship visits, personnel training, capability building, hotlines, joint exercises and other measures. China and Asean claimants can also start one or two pilot oil and gas joint exploration projects and make them a model to follow. There is also great promise in China's Belt and Road Initiative and its plan to establish Hainan as a free trade zone; China and Asean can make use of the opportunities they offer to discuss how to cooperate in port building, cruise ship tourism, shipping industry, etc. Both sides could also explore the possibility of establishing a pan-South China Sea economic cooperation framework to better coordinate with each other and to enhance regional connectivity.

The US Navy's destroyer Mustin carried out a freedom of navigation operation in March last year, coming within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea. The US-China rivalry is seen as a disruptive factor in the
The US Navy's destroyer Mustin carried out a freedom of navigation operation in March last year, coming within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea. The US-China rivalry is seen as a disruptive factor in the area, says the writer. PHOTO: U.S. NAVY

Third, China and Asean should enhance maritime security cooperation. This field, too, has great potential for China and Asean to work together. More bilateral or multilateral maritime military exercises between China and Asean member states can be conducted. Last year, the People's Liberation Army Navy, for the first time, held a maritime exercise with all Asean navies in two phases in Singapore and Zhanjiang, China. The exercise is a reflection of the increasing mutual trust between China and Asean militaries and is conducive to the stability of the South China Sea. China and Asean can explore the possibility of institutionalising such drills and expanding the scale.

As Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen noted at the Zhanjiang exercise, the way forward for the Asean-China maritime exercise is to have more of them, and larger ones, so that confidence can be built. He said the exercise was important to the region as it was "not a given" that militaries will always cooperate, or that they would agree on everything.

Fourth, China and Asean should highlight confidence-building measures and crisis management. In recent years, during the COC negotiation, China and Asean have accelerated efforts at strengthening such measures with the aim of preventing incidents at sea.

For instance, at the China-Asean summit in 2016, China and Asean jointly reviewed and approved a set of guidelines for hotline communications among senior officials in the event of maritime emergencies. At the same meeting in September, the Joint Statement on the Application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea in the South China Sea was also adopted.

These measures will improve the operational safety of naval ships and aircraft during encounters in the South China Sea, and that in turn will enhance mutual trust among China and Asean member states. China and Asean ought to make full use of the existing agreements and ensure their implementation, as well as explore the prospects of establishing new mechanisms that will help avoid incidents from arising; and if they do, to prevent their escalation.

In conclusion, China and Asean should cherish the present hard-won calm over the troubled waters of the South China Sea and build on that by enhancing cooperation in various fields. By doing so, both sides will advance the momentum of peace and stability in the region.

Liu Lin is an associate research fellow with the War Studies College, PLA Academy of Military Sciences.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 31, 2019, with the headline What China and Asean can do to maintain stability in South China Sea. Subscribe