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China-ASEAN Relations At 30: Pursuing Maritime Cooperation In South China Sea – Analysis

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Since 1991, the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China have been promoting maritime cooperation in order to pursue effctive ocean governance in the South China Sea.  Maritime cooperation has been in the agenda of China-ASEAN dialogue relations to ensure the peaceful management of the South China Sea disputes. China and ASEAN member states seriously recognize that peace and cooperation in the South China Sea are essential for regional security and prosperity.  

In fact, China welcomed the 1992 ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea, which states, “All parties concerned are urged to exercise restraint in order to create a positive climate for the eventual resolution of all disputes.”  The 1992 ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea also emphasizes the great need for all parties “to explore the possibility of cooperation in the South China Sea”. Areas of cooperation initially covered safety of maritime navigation and communication, protection against pollution of the marine environment, coordination of search and rescue operations, efforts towards combatting piracy and armed robbery as well as collaboration in the campaign against illicit trafficking in drugs”.   

There is a caveat, however, that China-ASEAN cooperation in the South China Sea is “without prejudice” to “the sovereignty and jurisdiction of countries having direct interests in the area.”    Notably, it was also in this Declaration when ASEAN envisioned the establishment of international code of conduct in the South China Sea in accordance with the principle of the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in Southeast Asia. 

China embraced ASEAN efforts to promote amity and cooperation in order to overcome enmity and conflict in the South China Sea. Towards this end, China signed with ASEAN the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea.  The DOC was a milestone in China-ASEAN relations as it highlighted the need to cooperate rather than compete in the South China Sea so China and ASEAN can enjoy peace, prosperity and security with each other. The DOC is also consistent with China’s principle of peaceful coexistence and ASEAN way of peaceful settlement of disputes through pragmatic cooperation.  The DOC identifies the following areas of China-ASEAN cooperation the South China Sea:  maritime environmental protection, marine scientific research, safety of navigation and communication at sea, search and rescue operations, and combatting transnational crimes including international terrorism.  

To strengthen China-ASEAN maritime cooperation, China even acceded to the 1976 TAC in 2003.  The TAC brings China and ASEAN in the same security complex where the security of each one is inextricably linked with the security of each other.  The TAC also provides the essential step for China and ASEAN to build a strong security community where the use of violence or force against each other has become so unlikely, unthinkable, and utterly impossible. Along with the DOC, the TAC has become the effective cornerstone of China-ASEAN maritime cooperation in the South China Sea.

To decisively implement the DOC, China and ASEAN formed in 2005 the Joint Working Group (JWG) on the South China Sea.  The JWG indicates that China and ASEAN are not only engaged in talking.  The JWG enormously demonstrates that China and ASEAN are really interested in working together in order to pursue cooperation in the South China Sea.  Though domestic pressures and external forces affect the timely implementation of the DOC, China and ASEAN have decided to level up their engagements by establishing a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.

In 2010, ASEAN drafted the COC.  Because China wanted the implementation first of the DOC, China and ASEAN adopted in 2011 the Guidelines for the Implementation of the DOC.  A year after, China and ASEAN agreed in 2012 on the Six-Point Principles to promote cooperation and peacefully manage conflicts in the South China Sea.  The Six-Point Principles reaffirm the following:

  1. The full implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (2002);
  2. The Guidelines for the Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (2011); 
  3. The early conclusion of a Regional Code of Conduct in the South China Sea;
  4. The full respect of the universally recognized principles of International Law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS); 
  5. The continued exercise of self-restraint and non-use of force by all parties; and,
  6. The peaceful resolution of disputes, in accordance with universally recognized principles of International Law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

To sustain the spirit and achieve the gains of maritime cooperation in the South China Sea, China and ASEAN started to discuss the conclusion of the COC in 2014.    In 2018, China and ASEAN agreed on the Single Draft Negotiating Text (SDNT) of the COC where China and ASEAN emphasized the need to uphold the principle of Duty to Cooperate.   The SDNT regards cooperation not only as an aspiration but also as a duty of all parties.  The Duty to Cooperate is an important building block for the promotion of effective ocean governance in the South China Sea.

In 2019, China and ASEAN had the First Reading of the SDNT. It was also during this time when China hoped to conclude the negotiation on the COC in three years.   Though the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 disrupted the negotiation process and delayed the Second Reading of the SDNT, the ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers Meeting on 7 June 2021, which marked the celebration of the 30th anniversary of their dialogue relations, agreed to continue the Second Reading of the SDNT despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

In other words, China and ASEAN have gone a long way in their cooperative undertakings in the South China Sea after 30 years of their dialogue relations.   These 30 challenging years provide strong foundations for China and ASEAN to level up their maritime cooperation and to soar higher in their relations in order to sustain their friendship, achieve regional peace, enjoy common prosperity and live in a community of shared future in the South China Sea. 

The author is the President of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS) and a member of the Board of Directors of the China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea (CSARC).  He is a Professorial Lecturer at the Department of International Studies, Miriam College, and an Adjunct Professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS). This piece is a revised version of a keynote speech prepared for the International Symposium marking the 30th Anniversary of China-ASEAN Dialogue Relations organized by the School of International Studies (SIS) of Jinan University on 6-7 November 2021.

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Rommel C. Banlaoi

Rommel C. Banlaoi, PhD is the Chairman of PIPVTR, President of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS) and a member of the Board of Directors of the China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea (CSARC).

One thought on “China-ASEAN Relations At 30: Pursuing Maritime Cooperation In South China Sea – Analysis

  • November 8, 2021 at 3:23 am
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    As a PHD, why so narrow minded about greedy China, China does not have anything in this sea. So, if China butt off there would be no need for DOC or COC. All small nations can work together and resolve the issue without any coercion or intimination. Don’t give China a free propaganda.

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