Last update 7/27/2011 8:00:00 AM (GMT+7)

Security environment in the East Sea and efforts for managing the disputes

VietNamNet Bridge - The East Sea’s (South China Sea) significance has been wider recognized by many stakeholders in international navigation, maritime safety, natural resource exploitation, environmental protection, and legal effectiveness of international law. The East Sea disputes relating to the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands and maritime zones associated with these groups of islands remain as ones of potential flashpoints that could cause regional instability.

The East Sea disputes

Since 1990s, efforts have been made by regional countries to stabilize the situation and seek the opportunities for cooperation in the East Sea area. These efforts have resulted in, among others, the ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea in 1992, the adoption in 2002 of the ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC), according to which all signing parties pledged to seek peaceful solutions to disputes and conduct maritime cooperation in order to maintain regional stability in the East Sea. However, after signing the DOC, the parties have not ceased activities that complicate the situation. Tensions have occasionally arisen and claimants continued to protest each other’s moves in the East Sea.

This article will focus on the efforts made by regional countries to stabilize the situation and promote cooperation in the East Sea; analyse implications of recent developments in the East Sea for regional security and cooperation, why the implementation of the signed documents, especially the DOC, has been incomplete; and try to contribute some solution-oriented suggestions for promoting regional security and cooperation.

Prior to the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea between China and ASEAN in 2002, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) and the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone concluded in 1976 and 1995 respectively were the main legal instruments governing behaviours of the parties concerned in the East Sea. The fundamental principles guiding the signing parties in the TAC include the settlement of differences by peaceful means, non-resort to the threat or use of force and the promotion of effective cooperation among the concerned parties.

ASEAN members first adopted their common stance on the East Sea dispute in the ASEAN Declaration on the East Sea signed in Manila in 1992. The declaration demonstrated ASEAN’s concerns over the tension between Vietnam and China after the latter licensed the Creston Energy Corporation (from the United States) to exploit oil in Vanguard Bank on Vietnam’s continental shelf and passed its Law on the Territorial Sea on 25 February 1992 stipulating China’s absolute sovereignty over both the Paracels and the Spratly islands. ASEAN’s foreign ministers recognized that “South China Sea issues involve sensitive questions of sovereignty and jurisdiction of the parties directly concerned” and the fact that “any adverse developments in the East Sea directly affect peace and stability in the region”.

The Declaration called on the parties concerned to settle the dispute by peaceful means, exercise restraint and cooperate in applying the principles enshrined in the TAC as a basis for establishing a code of international conduct over the East Sea. The Declaration called for exploring the possibility of cooperation in the East Sea. In addition, all parties concerned were invited to subscribe to this Manila Declaration.

Vietnam, a non-ASEAN country at the time, supported Manila Declaration. China, however, reiterated its position on its refusal to accept multilateral discussion of the issue and its view that the Paracels and Spratlys disputes did not concern ASEAN. Nevertheless, Chinese foreign minister Qian Qichen said that China subscribed to the declaration’s “principles”.
The Mischief Reef incident in 1995 marked a change in China’s policy toward the East Sea. China built infrastructure on a submerged reef that in the Spratly islands and well within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) led to the first time that China and the Philippines engaged in hostile confrontation. Previously, China had only been antagonistic towards Vietnam, a non-ASEAN member, in 1974 and 1988. After the Mischief Reef incident, ASEAN sought initiatives that could prevent existing disputes from escalating into conflicts.

The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea

The idea of a regional Code of Conduct (COC) was previously put forward in the 1992 ASEAN Declaration and was discussed intensively in the track-2 workshop series organized by Indonesia on managing potential conflicts in the East Sea since 1991. The idea of COC was officially endorsed at the 29th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (Jakarta, July 21–27, 1996) in the hope that it would provide the foundation for long-term stability in the area and foster understanding among the countries concerned. The ASEAN Foreign Ministers expressed their concerns over the situation in the East Sea in the joint communiqué and underlined that the parties concerned should apply the principles of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) as the basis for a regional code of conduct in the East Sea to build a secure and stable regional environment.

Although a binding code of conduct had been considered the primary goal, after almost 5 years of negotiations ASEAN and China eventually only reached a political document. On 4 November 2002 in Phnom-Penh, ASEAN and the People’s Republic of China signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC). The DOC was signed as a step toward the adoption of a more binding COC which defines the rights and responsibility of the parties concerned to further promote peace, stability and development in the region.

China’s accession to the DOC marked a major change in its approach to the South China Sea dispute, from bilateralism to ‘bi-multilateralism’. Previously, China had only advocated for bilateral negotiations in order to take advantage of its position as a regional power and avoid any unified ASEAN front against its interest.

Though China was determined to remain its claim in the disputed areas, it seemed prepared to join multilateral mechanisms and respect the rules and values of the game. By accepting multilateral negotiations with ASEAN over the COC and DOC, China sought to exploit the divides between the ASEAN member states. Furthermore, with the DOC, China could gain politically and economically and alleviate ASEAN’s concern about China. In response to the ‘China threat’ theory, China advocated a ‘peaceful-rise’ doctrine and ‘peaceful-development’ policies as its national development guidelines to calm its neighbors.

Southeast Asia is the focus of China’s friendly policy. The signing of the DOC partly helped China gain the trust and confidence of ASEAN members, laying the foundation for further development in economic and trade ties. Furthermore, the DOC, a political and non-binding document, did not affect any of China’s claims, and therefore would not provoke any negative reaction from within China itself.

The regional security situation in the wake of September 11, 2001 also contributed to the signing of the DOC in 2002. After the incident, the United States declared that Southeast Asia was the second front of its war against terrorism, which aroused China’s concerns over the U.S. geo-political position in the region.7 Relations between US and the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam were improved and strengthened. Three countries are ASEAN members and directly involved in the South China Sea dispute with China. Other ASEAN members like Thailand, Singapore and even Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim country, supported the U.S. in its anti-terrorism war.

In August 2002, the ASEAN-U.S. Joint Declaration for Cooperation to Combat International Terrorism was signed.8 The increased cooperation between the United States and its Southeast Asian allies exerted an influence on China’s strategic calculations. Although China supported US on the war on terrorism, China was concerned that the enhanced military presence of the U.S. in the region might lead to U.S. engagement in the East Sea issue. As a result, China feared that the East Sea issue would be multilateralized and internationalized.

According to Leszek Buszynski, the main reason leading to China’s participation in the DOC was that this country realized the significance of a regional code of conduct in discouraging ASEAN member countries from further enhancing their political and military relations with the United States, thus avoiding U.S. interference in the East Sea dispute as well as possible U.S. advantage in the Taiwan issue.

From ASEAN’s perspective, China’s economic growth was seen as an opportunity for its member countries. On November 5, 2002, in Phnom Penh, an ASEAN-China Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Cooperation was signed, paving the way for an ASEAN-China Free Trade Area in 2010. This represented an important step forward in ASEAN-China relations.10 The potential profit from their two-way trade contributed to the signing of the DOC. On this issue, Amitav Acharya wrote, “[f]rom a political angle, the realization of a China-ASEAN free trade zone agreement indicates that historical fraud and political clashes between ASEAN member states and PRC are no longer one of the most important factors influencing ASEAN-PRC relations.”

At the seventh ASEAN-China Summit on October 8, 2003 in Bali, Indonesia, both sides signed a Joint Declaration of the Heads of State/Government on Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity with a declared purpose to foster friendly relations, mutually beneficial cooperation, and good neighborliness between ASEAN and China by deepening and expanding ASEAN-China cooperative relations in a comprehensive manner in the 21st century. On the same day, China officially became the first non-ASEAN country to join the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, thus encouraging China to commit to settle disputes in a peaceful manner and avoid threatening behavior or the use of force.

ASEAN countries highly appreciated these developments, which made a mayor contribution to regional peace, security, and development. In 2005, Chinese leader Hu Jintao visited Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines to promote friendship and cooperation and to assuage concerns about Chinese intentions. All of these developments, combined with other activities within the Chinese ‘charm offensive’ toward Southeast Asia, including the 2001 proposal to establish a China-ASEAN Free Trade Area (CAFTA), had helped reduce the regional perception of China as a threat.

Implementation of DOC: China returns to bilateralism

To translate the provisions of the DOC into concrete cooperation activities, in the Plan of Action to implement the 2003 Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity, which was formulated to serve as the master plan to deepen and broaden ASEAN-China relations and cooperation, among other things, ASEAN and China declared to pursue joint actions and measures to implement the DOC in an ‘effective way’. The actions and measures include: to convene regular ASEAN-China SOM on the realization of the DOC; to provide guidance for and review the implementation of the DOC; and to establish a working group to both draw up the guidelines for the implementation of the DOC and to provide recommendations to the ASEAN-China SOM on policy and implementation issues.

At the first ASEAN-China SOM on the implementation of the DOC in Kuala Lumpur on December 7, 2004, participants decided to set up a joint working group (JWG) to study and recommend confidence-building activities. The ASEAN-China JWG is tasked to formulate recommendations on: a) guidelines and action plan for the implementation of the DOC; b) specific cooperative activities in the South China Sea; c) a register of experts and eminent persons who may provide technical inputs, non-binding and professional views or policy recommendations to the ASEAN-China JWG; and d) the convening of workshops, as the need arises.

At the first meeting of the ASEAN-China JWG in Manila on August 4-5, 2005, ASEAN presented a draft of Guidelines for the implementation of DOC for discussion. However, the main issue is point 2 of the Guidelines for the implementation of DOC. According to ASEAN’ practice in dealing with Dialogue Partner, ASEAN wants to deal with China as a group and to “consult among themselves” before meeting with China, while China prefers consultations with “relevant parties”, not with ASEAN as a bloc. After several meetings of ASEAN-China JWG, a consensus on point 2 of the guideline has not been reached and the agreed six joint cooperation projects on less sensitive issues were still on the papers.

Tran Truong Thuy
(Dr. Tran Truong Thuy is Director of the Centre for East Sea Studies at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam)
(To be continued…)