DOC Implementation and Cooperation at Sea
September 2, 2020
Chairman of CSARC
President of National Institute for South China Sea Studies
The South China Sea is one of the most contested and sensitive waters in the world. Since the beginning of this year, some extra-regional countries keep stepping up military operations in the South China Sea region and making interventions on the South China Sea issue. Unilateral actions by a small number of countries in the region are also on the rise. As a result, the once stable situation in the South China Sea is becoming increasingly volatile. It is imperative for China and ASEAN countries to further consolidate and strengthen political mutual trust, promote practical cooperation at sea, and build rules at sea under the framework of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).
I. Encouraging progress and outcomes in China-ASEAN cooperation at sea since the signing of the DOC
The DOC is an important political document signed by China and ASEAN countries in 2002, demonstrating the political will of the parties to maintain stability in the South China Sea and promote mutual trust and cooperation. Over the years, it has made major contribution to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea and promoting mutual trust and cooperation among the parties. Negotiations on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea were resumed in 2013 and the first reading of the single draft negotiating text has been concluded.
First, China and ASEAN countries kept making big strides in the COC negotiations. So far, China and ten ASEAN countries have held 18 Senior Officials’ Meetings on the Implementation of the DOC (SOMDOC) and 30 joint working group meetings, which have achieved a series of major progress and early harvest in their cooperation at sea. In particular, in the past three years, they have made fruitful outcomes in the COC negotiations—adopted the framework text and the single draft negotiating text, concluded the first reading of the single draft negotiating text, established the vision for concluding the negotiations in 2021, and reached new consensus on the second reading of the text. Such progress is significant not only for managing crisis at sea and building mutual trust, but more importantly for making institutional arrangements on regulating behaviors and actions of the parties at sea and clarifying what the parties can do and what they can’t as well as what they should do and what they shouldn’t. The COC will surely serve as an anchor of peace and stability in the South China Sea. In particular, as negotiations on the COC text are picking up, it is expected that China and ASEAN countries will establish a rules-based and open order for practical cooperation on the South China Sea.
Second, China and ASEAN made breakthroughs in their traditional and non-traditional security cooperation. On non-traditional security, China is committed to cooperate with ASEAN countries by establishing three technical committees on marine scientific research and environmental protection, safety of navigation and search and rescue, and combating transnational crimes at sea. In 2011, the government of China established a China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund, providing essential financial support to practical cooperation on the South China Sea. In the SOMDOC in April 2016, the parties expressed their commitment to implement the early harvest, including Hotline Communications among Senior Officials of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of ASEAN Member States and China in Response to Maritime Emergencies in the Implementation of the DOC in the SCS and the Maritime Emergency Search and Rescue Hotline platform among China and ASEAN member states. In 2016, they agreed to guidelines for the senior diplomats’ hotline and issued a joint statement on applying the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) in the South China Sea. In May 2017, the 14th SOMDOC reviewed and adopted the non-paper on the steps towards the establishment of the technical committees, which further consolidated the basis for cooperation on marine research and environmental protection, safety of navigation and search and rescue, as well as combat against transnational crimes at sea. In October 2017, coastal states of the South China Sea held a China-ASEAN joint search and rescue field exercise in Zhanjiang, China.
Since the 16th SOMDOC in October 2018, China and ASEAN countries have updated several times the work plan 2016-2021 for implementation and identified a number of practical cooperation projects at sea. China and ASEAN countries also made breakthroughs in traditional security cooperation. For example, they held joint maritime exercises in the north of the South China Sea and off the coast of Qingdao, China in October 2018 and April 2019 respectively. This brought security cooperation at sea between China and ASEAN countries to a new level and represented a valuable exploration for a new regional security architecture.
Third, speedy progress in dispute settlement and crisis management at sea. Under the DOC framework, China and some ASEAN countries, via consultations and negotiations, have established a series of multilateral and bilateral mechanisms to manage crisis on the South China Sea such as the senior diplomats’ hotline to address maritime emergencies and the maritime emergency search and rescue hotline. At the bilateral level, China and the Philippines have successfully held five meetings since the two governments established a bilateral consultation mechanism on the South China Sea. This mechanism provides a major platform for them to manage differences, promote practical cooperation at sea, and facilitate resolution of their disputes at sea. In October 2018, China and the Philippines signed an MOU on oil and gas cooperation. On this basis, they established an intergovernmental joint steering committee for oil and gas cooperation, leading to continuous and good progress in their joint development and cooperation at sea. In September 2019, China and Malaysia also reached agreement on a bilateral consultation mechanism on maritime issues, ushering in a new chapter for their dialogue and cooperation on maritime issues. Despite the fact that covid-19 has delayed many cooperation projects at sea, the parties are still confident that these projects will be resumed quickly after covid-19.
II. Current Difficulties in Implementing the DOC
The signing of the DOC is a milestone for the parties to promote practical cooperation and manage differences at sea, providing enabling conditions and environment for them to ultimately peacefully resolve their disputes. However, due to a myriad of complex factors, the parties face major and immediate challenges in implementing the DOC.
First, due to the South China Sea issue, political mutual trust between the parties to disputes remain low and a small number of countries are less willing to implement the DOC. The lack of strong political will, essential to cooperation between China and other claimants in disputed waters, has been a major obstacle to cooperation in the South China Sea. Disputes on boundary delimitation and energy resources have bothered coastal states to the South China Sea for years and conflicts are growing between the parties on sovereignty over islands and reefs, fishing and unilateral oil and gas development. Therefore, the parties are vigilant and suspicious of each other, which made cooperation on the South China Sea difficult.
Second, countries in the region are distracted by interventions from the U.S. and other extra-regional countries. As confrontation between China and the U.S. has expanded from a few sectors to across the board, the SCS issue has become a major arena for security competition between the two countries and the U.S. has become the greatest destabilizing factor in peace and stability of the South China Sea. Since the beginning of this year, the U.S. has illegally entered territorial waters of China’s Xisha Islands as well as adjacent waters and airspace of the islands and reefs in China’s Nansha Islands in high frequency and different ways. It has also reversed its previous “no position, relative neutrality” policy on the disputes over sovereignty in the South China Sea, created tensions between China and other claimants, and driven a wedge in the relations between China and ASEAN countries. For their selfish interests, some countries in the region drew some extra-regional countries in to make intervention. This has severely disturbed the COC negotiations, further complicated the landscape in the South China Sea, and distracted the parties to the COC.
Third, the scope of the disputes in the South China Sea has been expanded and cooperation in low sensitive fields politicized so much so that it will be difficult to further deepen and broaden cooperation among countries in the region. Pending the resolution of major differences and given the imbalance of power between them and China, other claimants will be suspicious of any cooperation initiative proposed by China, in the fear that China will build hegemony in the region and impose its policies and claims to South China Sea upon other countries. Moreover, as geopolitical competition between China and the U.S. is intensifying in the South China Sea, destabilizing factors in the South China Sea landscape are rising, along with growing risks of conflicts at sea. Likewise, it has become more difficult to resolve disputes peacefully and build consensus through security cooperation in low-sensitive fields.
III. Proposals for Cooperation at Sea
To further and effectively implement the DOC and break the dilemma in current cooperation at sea, I’d like to put forward the following proposals for your consideration.
First, the COC negotiations and the DOC implementation need to move forward hand in hand and reinforce each other. China and ten ASEAN countries are jointly committed to the full implementation of the DOC. To make progress in the COC negotiations is an important objective and part of the DOC implementation. Rather than contradicting each other, the two issues should move forward hand in hand. As mechanisms to manage crisis and uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea, both the DOC and the COC are committed to promoting mutual trust, avoiding conflicts and building regional rules accepted by all the parties, laying the foundation for the ultimate peaceful resolution of disputes. In the future, China and ASEAN countries should make steady progress in the COC negotiations under the framework of a fully and effectively implemented DOC; they can also consider the establishment of a DOC implementation mechanism under the COC framework, so that the DOC and the COC can move forward in parallel. As an integral part of the future COC, the mechanism and measures for practical cooperation at sea will be further expanded and supported.
Second, we can draw upon the successful experience of regional cooperation elsewhere such as the Mediterranean. Since the end of 1960s, European countries have followed the approach of “narrowing claims and expanding cooperation” in exploring maritime cooperation in the North Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and the Baltic Sea, with rich experience accumulated. Countries in the South China Sea region can learn from the regional maritime cooperation networks established in Europe. Based on the consensus and practices established in the region, China and ASEAN countries can learn from Europe’s successful experience and explore a viable solution to maritime cooperation in line with the actual conditions and current needs of the region.
Third, we can formulate a list of cooperation issues at sea, start with easier ones and make steady progress. The DOC has identified five major fields for cooperation—marine environmental protection, research on marine science, maritime navigation and transport safety, research, rescue and aid, and crackdown on transnational crimes. Based on this consensus, the parties can formulate a list of the DOC cooperation initiatives in order of priority, in line with the current level of their mutual trust and difference in interests as well as the urgent tasks facing maritime governance and environmental protection. We can start with cooperation projects agreed by the parties and deepen consensus-and-outcome-oriented maritime cooperation on the South China Sea.