Chheang Vannarith, Imagining Regional Order in the South China Sea

Imagining Regional Order in the South China Sea

Chheang Vannarith

President, Asian Vision Institute (AVI)


The geopolitical tensions in the South China Sea have been intensifying over the past decade especially in the past four years in tandem with the rise of US-China rivalry. Regional security and order are at stake and high risk.  There are various views regarding the future of regional order in the South China Sea. The widespread view, mainly shaped by the U.S. strategic narratives, is that China is going to build a regional hegemon in East Asia by effectively controlling the lion portion of the South China Sea. In other words, the regional order will be Sino-centric.  The narratives from Washington concentrate on the threats posed by China and the legitimacy and necessity of the U.S. interventions, including military measure, in order to prevent China from building a regional hegemon that can overtake the supremacy of the US in the region.  These narratives fall into the Cold War mentality in which zero-sum game is the nature of international relations.  The overpoliticisation and over-securitisation of the South China Sea further complicate the process and prospect of regional cooperation in the South China Sea. For China, the interventions of extra-regional powers in the South China trigger geopolitical tensions and fault lines.

There is a need to develop theoretical narratives based on the history and wisdom of Asian civilisation, moving beyond zero-sum game theory. China and Southeast Asian countries have a long history of peaceful interactions for more than two thousand years. Although there are tensions and disruptions, cooperation, peace, and development remain the trend in the region. It is crystal clear Southeast Asian countries are not interested in taking sides or using one major power against the other. They do not wish to take sides. ASEAN, the most important inter-governmental organisation, plays a critical role in providing strategic space and economic opportunities for the member states to manoeuvre. ASEAN as a collective agency can shape the future direction of the regional order.

Despite the ongoing tensions, peace and cooperation remains the trend of the region. There is room for regional countries to construct a regional order in the South China Sea. Regional order here refers to a set of common interests, values, rules, norms, and institutions that govern state behaviour and international relations. Conflicts are reduced if states are bound by these shared interests, rules, and norms. Dialogue mechanisms can help resolve states’ uncertainties by signalling intentions.

Let us imagine here how to build a stable and peaceful regional order in the South China Sea. There are three pathways towards building a peaceful regional order. First, we need to constantly promote trust-based cooperation and relationship. It is easier said than done though. The parties directly concerned must refrain from taking any unilateral actions that might lead to distrust and tensions. They should openly exchange views based on mutual respect, mutual interest, and positive sum game. Transparency, dialogue, mutual respect, and mutual understanding are the key elements of trust-based relationship building. Trust is built by repeated compliance with rules and norms, and established expectations for behaviour. Strategic narratives are critical in promoting and socialising cooperation sprit and trust-based relationship. By reducing the narratives influenced by the Cold War mentality, regional countries can enlarge the space for frank and constructive dialogues.

Second, building a rules-based regional order is a long-term process. We need to have a common definition and understanding on rules-based international order. ASEAN and China have reached several consensuses on rules-based international order including the implementation in entirety the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) and the negotiation on the Code of Conduct (COC), and the peaceful settlement of disputes based on international law including UNCLOS 1982.  In addition to the UN Charter, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation and the ASEAN Charter are critical sources of rules-based regional order in the South China Sea.  To make rules work, the claimant states must depoliticise sea boundary demarcation and legal and technical experts should be empowered to find appropriate solutions to the issue.

The DOC provides: “The Parties Concerned reaffirm commitment to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, and other universally recognised principles of international law which shall serve as the basic norms governing state-to-state relations.” The COC is expected to add more legal values to the DOC. To some, the COC should be a legally binding regional code embodying effective enforcement measures to prevent, manage and settle the disputes. The Chairman’s Statement of the 36th ASEAN Summit in June 2020, although there was no consensus among ASEAN member states, hints that Vietnam and few other ASEAN member countries are pushing for the legal narrative and acceptance that UNCLOS is “the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones”.

Third, functional cooperation is essential in nurturing a trust-based relationship and rules-based order. Some of the practical cooperation areas include joint research and exploration, joint development, joint exercises on Non-Traditional Security issues, and collective response to NTS issues such as search and rescue collaboration, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and marine environment protection. Functional cooperation cannot be realised unless there is good faith, all parties concerned agree to work or have a consensus on issues of common interests (targeting low-hanging fruits), and build a mechanism that can materialise functional cooperation. State and non-state actors must work together to materialise functional cooperation, especially in concretising joint development projects in the overlapping claims. The parties concerned need to negotiate in good faith and take a conciliatory approach in which they are ready to make concessions.

The DOC stresses the spirit of cooperation and understanding. Paragraph 5 of the DOC states, “pending the peaceful settlement of territorial and jurisdictional disputes, the Parties concerned undertake to intensify efforts to seek ways, in the spirit of cooperation and understanding, to build trust and confidence”. In addition, Article 19(1) of the ASEAN Agreement on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources reads: “Contracting Parties that share natural resources shall co-operate concerning their conservation and harmonious utilisation, taking into account the sovereignty, rights and interests of the Contracting Parties concerned in accordance with generally accepted principles of international law”.

Regional order construction needs several binding elements, including deepened regional integration, connectivity, and interdependence. Economic integration, shared values and principles, and the projection of a shared future/common destiny are critical sources of regional order. The Covid-19 pandemic has made regional leaders realise that they live on the same boat and their survival and destiny are very interwoven. ASEAN has become the top trading partner of China in 2020. Maintaining an open and inclusive regionalism provides conductive environment for regional cooperation and regional order construction I the South China Sea.