Duty to cooperate and practical cooperation in the South China Sea – Analysis – Eurasia Review
On July 25, I had the privilege of participating in an international workshop to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of the Parties in the South China Sea. The event was organized by the Department of Border and Ocean Affairs of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the China Institute of Border and Ocean Studies of Wuhan University and the National Institute of South China Sea Studies. . It brought together officials, scholars and experts from ASEAN countries and China, including those who played a key role in negotiating the document.
The South China Sea (SCS) conflict is one of the world’s oldest multi-party flashpoints. Persistent incidents have thus marked the DOC for criticism. Faced with high – and sometimes unrealistic – expectations, it is easy to dismiss his contribution to pacifying the stormy seas. But no one can deny that no major conflicts have erupted in the hotspot, even in the most tense and heated times in the past. Although loose and non-binding, the specter of a regional backlash resulting from serious breaches of the Declaration has kept authoritarian impulses at bay. However, the filing of an arbitration case in 2013 and the construction of massive artificial islands between 2013 and 2016 ended the agreement.
The DOC may have served its purpose, especially in its early years, but times have changed. Nationalism is on the rise. The capacity of coastal states is growing. The demand for access to more resources is increasing. Great power rivalry also intensified, with the semi-enclosed sea becoming one of its main arenas. Making the SCS a sea of peace, stability and prosperity becomes more daunting. Fast forward two decades, many have lost faith in the DOC and are now pinning their hopes on its successor, the Code of Conduct (COC).
The first reading of the COC’s Draft Single Negotiating Text was an important milestone. But despite the desire to conclude it as soon as possible, many recognize serious sticking points, in particular the accepted modes of dispute resolution, the role of third parties and the nature of the document. Even the segment that covers the obligation to cooperate and practical maritime cooperation also contains both overlaps and divergences. Nevertheless, this section can still serve as a cement to bind the parts together. Considering the relevant potentials and recent developments, three areas are promising: maritime connectivity and trade, marine scientific research and conservation of fishery resources.
Maritime connectivity and trade
The SCS connects Mainland China and Southeast Asia to Insular Southeast Asia. It connects the Gulf of Thailand and the Mekong Delta to the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas, and the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation to the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA). Ports and ships are to BIMP-EAGA what roads and railways are to Indochina. However, ro-ro (“ro-ro”) ferry routes in the maritime sub-region suffer from low cargo volumes, among other challenges. Reaching peninsular Southeast Asia is one way to make it more viable.
Manila-based shipping company Reefer Express Line Filipinas Inc. offered to add Ho Chi Minh City to its trip to get a wider loop. The revised itinerary would run from Davao in Mindanao to Bitung in North Sulawesi, after which the ship will call at Ho Chi Minh City in South Vietnam. From there it heads north to Borneo, passing through Muara in Brunei and Lahad Datu in Sabah, before returning to Bitung and Davao. This longer service may even include more mainland Southeast Asian ports, such as Kuantan in Peninsular Malaysia, Sihanoukville in Cambodia and Laem Chabang in Thailand. The route can even be extended further north to reach the Hainan Free Trade Port. This can help deepen ASEAN-China maritime traffic and increase trade complementarity.
In addition to boosting intra-regional trade through the SCS, the expanded route can also serve maritime cruise tourism. The latter should be strengthened as borders reopen and travel constraints due to the Covid-19 pandemic are eased. The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia have made efforts to strengthen the security of the Sulu-Sulawesi seas. Such a trilateral arrangement has stabilized this maritime space, making inter-island trade more conducive. Investments in ports and economic zones along the route, especially in BIMP-EAGA as they are traditional backwaters in their respective countries, are vital. Providing support and assistance in building and improving Customs, Immigration, Quarantine and Security (CIQS) at border ports along the route and harmonization of measures and standards are also precious.
Marine scientific research
This effort can focus on studying the impact of climate change on the marine environment and fisheries resources in the MCS. It is relevant and timely, especially for coastal communities and industries dependent on the sea. Such science diplomacy is an important confidence-building measure. It activates a key constituency – marine scientists and fisheries experts in the region – who can encourage and advise their respective governments on the merits and importance of pursuing non-detrimental and mutually beneficial practical cooperation in the resource-rich sea. . Such a constituency can take part in the relevant dialogues of tracks 1.5 and 2 in favor of the policy of the participating countries. The capacity of ASEAN countries and China to undertake MSR has grown over the years, and each can benefit from pooling resources and learning from each other. Common results can be shared through conferences, publications or exchanges. Reports and recommendations from a panel of regional experts can be submitted to relevant state authorities for appropriate action.
A welcome development in this regard has been the relaunch of the Joint Oceanographic and Marine Scientific Research Expedition (JOMSRE) in the SSC between the Philippines and Vietnam in November 2021. Between 1996 and 2007, the first phase of JOMSRE conducted four sea expeditions. This initial phase covered a large part of the southern SCS, so a proposal to study the northern part was made with the participation of China. Three preparatory meetings were held in Manila, Guangzhou and Nha Trang, but a fourth was not convened. Politics got in the way, frustrating efforts to expand cooperation to cover the rest of SCS. The renewed JOMSRE can take off from its previous version and open up to other countries and even to international organizations.
Conservation of fishery resources
The SCS is an integrated marine ecosystem, and the life cycle and movement of living marine species in the semi-enclosed sea know no boundaries. Therefore, conservation, preservation and management efforts of declining fishery resources in the waters should also be transboundary to be more effective. ASEAN and China can consider some important steps. First, the 11 parties can undertake a joint assessment of fish stocks in the MCS and propose measures for restocking and stock enhancement. Second, they can negotiate a joint or coordinated fishing ban to replace the much-felt unilateral impositions. Third, they can identify marine sanctuaries in the SCS where fishing would be prohibited or even seriously restricted. Fourth, they can negotiate a reduction in fishing capacity, taking into account traditional or artisanal fishing and matching commercial fishing volumes with the sustainable carrying capacity of the sea. In all these areas, the contribution of experts sea and fishing will be essential.
The DOC was signed in Cambodia and there was initially hope that the COC would also be ratified there. But the pandemic has complicated crucial in-person diplomacy in the delicate talks. Therefore, completing the COC this year is more ambitious than anything else. The obstacles, in particular the involvement of non-regional parties, are significant. Attractive incentives on the duty to cooperate section and the promotion of pragmatic cooperation, including in the three points mentioned above, can attract the parties. Such rewards can motivate countries to stay when negotiations get tough.