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Foreign Policy

ASEAN, China and the South China Sea Dispute Management

Sep 05 , 2012

Managing the situation in the South China Sea has proven to be difficult. In this context the role that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) can play is of particular interest. Some of the complexities involved were displayed at the recent ASEAN meetings held in Cambodia.

ASEAN and the management of the South China Sea situation

Since the early 1990s ASEAN has sought to pursue a proactive role in response to developments in the South China Sea. ASEAN has done so through its statements relating to developments in the area, through its dialogue with China, and through the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) which held its first working meeting in 1994.

Among the ASEAN statements the most important one is the “ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea” issued in 1992. The Declaration’s main feature is its emphasis on the necessity to resolve the disputes by peaceful means without resort to the use of force. Furthermore, all parties concerned are urged to exercise restraint in order to create a positive climate for the eventual resolution of all disputes in the area.

The ASEAN-China dialogue relates to the overall relationship between the Association and China in both political and economic dimensions. Gradually the two sides agreed to include the developments in the South China Sea into the agenda of the dialogue process. Interestingly enough the ASEAN-China dialogue brings together the ASEAN member states with claims to parts or the whole of the Spratly archipelago (Nansha Islands in Chinese) alongside China.

As the driving force behind and within the ARF, ASEAN has sought to put the South China Sea developments on the agenda. This has eventually succeeded after China had withdrawn its earlier opposition to discussions on the South China Sea in the multilateral setting of the ARF.

The role that ASEAN can play in relation to the South China Sea situation is a rather complex one since four of its member states have sovereignty claims to all or parts of the Spratly archipelago, i.e. Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. This creates a situation in which ASEAN cannot play the role of a third-party mediator between China and the other claimants unless all consent to.

The ASEAN-China dialogue relating to the South China Sea was initially primarily characterised by the search for mutually agreeable mechanisms to manage the situation in the South China Sea. The two sides set up the “ASEAN-China Working Group on the Regional Code of Conduct on the South China Sea”, which held its first meeting on 15 March 2000, and the issue was also addressed at various levels of the ASEAN-China Dialogue. The difficulties in reaching an agreement on the content and scope of such mechanisms focused on how to reconcile an ASEAN proposal and a Chinese proposal. Within ASEAN the process of agreeing on the content and scope of the grouping’s proposal was a difficult one. In fact there were indications of differences among ASEAN member states relating to the “scope of application” of such mechanisms, i.e. which areas of the South China Sea should be encompassed. Eventually the ASEAN members managed to reconcile their differences and also ASEAN and China managed to do so. This paved the way for the signing of the “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea” (DOC) by the ASEAN member states and China on 4 November 2002 in connection with the Eight ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh.

The intra-ASEAN dimension is a complex one. In order to formulate an ASEAN policy towards the South China Sea the views and interests of the member states with claims in the South China Sea have to be reconciled, i.e. not only the four claimants to all or parts of the Spratly archipelago, but also Indonesia who claims maritime zones to the North and Northeast of the Natuna Islands. In addition views and interest of the five member states with no claims in the South China Sea have to be taken into consideration.

Another relevant dimension of the intra-ASEAN process relates to how the member states perceive China and its policies and actions. This was of particular relevance in the 1990s when tensions relating to developments in the South China Sea between Vietnam and China and between the Philippines and China, respectively, caused considerable concern in the region. At the same time Cambodia and Thailand had good and close relations and no border disputes with China. Different perceptions and relations with China within the Association complicate the process of formulating a clear-cut ASEAN policy towards China on the South China Sea, among other things.

In the 2000s ASEAN-China relations have developed significantly in terms of both economic and political collaboration, which led to several key agreements, including the 2002 Framework Agreement on Comprehensive Economic Co-operation which provided for an ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA) initiated in 2010.

Assessing ASEAN’s possibilities to influence developments in the South China Sea

The Spratly dispute situation and the overall situation in the South China Sea are challenges to ASEAN both internally and in the Association’s foreign relations. The Association is not intended to formally act as a third-party mediator in the disputes involving its member states unless it is ascribed to do so or asked to do so by the member states. Instead the Association is intended to serve as a vehicle to promote better relations among its members. This is done by creating conducive conditions for increasing interaction through the overall co-operation carried out under the ASEAN-umbrella. Another role that ASEAN can play is to formulate and adopt mechanisms, which can be utilised by the member states to manage their disputes. ASEAN can also establish principles on how its member states should behave towards each other. This implies that in order to achieve peace and stability in Southeast Asia the ASEAN member states must act in such a way as to peacefully manage the existing and potential inter-state disputes among them. This responsibility extends to disputes in the South China Sea in which ASEAN member states are involved.

In July 2001 ASEAN adopted the “Rules of Procedure of the High Council of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia”. Thus, it is possible that the member states of ASEAN with claims in the South China Sea could bring their disputes with other members-states in the South China Sea to the Council. Another scenario has emerged after China acceded to the “Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia” (TAC) in October 2003, namely that disputes involving Southeast Asian countries and China could be brought to the High Council. However, given the fact that none of the member states of ASEAN have opted to bring a dispute to the High Council it appears as though the High Council is not the preferred option for dispute settlement within the Association. This indicates that a degree of mistrust still persists between some of the member states. It can also be argued that if the ASEAN members do not utilise the High Council for dispute settlement with other member states then it is highly unlikely they will opt to do so with a dispute involving China.

The on-going multilateral discussions including the ASEAN-China dialogue relating to the situation in South China Sea do provide a boost for confidence building measures and avenues for the parties to the disputes to get together and discuss the situation. The DOC is the most important agreement reached thus far. The aim is to defuse tension and promote the use of peaceful means to handle the situation. Furthermore, the respect of the status quo is promoted. An important agreement was reached between the member states of ASEAN and China in July 2011 when they adopted the “Guidelines for the Implementation of the DOC”. The on-going discussions within ASEAN as well as between ASEAN and China relating to a possible Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea are further positive steps.

From ASEAN’s perspective the aim of its policy towards the South China Sea is to promote confidence building and contribute to the non-escalation of the dispute situations. As displayed by the “ASEAN Political-Security Community Blueprint” – adopted in March 2009 – ASEAN is not only committed to the full implementation of the DOC but also to: “work towards the adoption of a regional Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC)”.

One of the major problems from an ASEAN perspective is how to respond to the periods of tension between member states of ASEAN and China in the South China Sea. In such situations ASEAN solidarity calls for other member states to support the so-called “front-line state”, but at the same time they do not want to jeopardise their overall relationships with China, which is of great importance to them both economically and geo-strategically. This dilemma also affects the responses and policies of the Association as a whole in such situations.

Concluding remarks

The TAC appears to remain the key part of the ASEAN dispute management framework that can guide both the Southeast Asian claimants and China in maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea. The TAC provides three main factors for managing inter-state relations: non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, peaceful settlement of disputes, and overall co-operation.

ASEAN and China should strive to strengthen the existing mechanisms for managing the situation in the South China Sea by moving beyond the DOC and develop new legal arrangements either an ASEAN-China Code of Conduct or a similar binding agreement, which could encompass guidelines for self-restraint, cooperation and the application of international law. The adoption of guidelines for the implementation of the DOC in 2011 is a positive step in that direction. The on-going discussions relating to a possible COC among the member states of ASEAN as well as between ASEAN and China are further positive steps.

Ramses Amer, PhD and Associate Professor in Peace and Conflict Research, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Oriental Languages, Stockholm University, Sweden, and Research Associate, Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Stockholm, Sweden

Li Jianwei, Director and Research Fellow at Research Division III, National Institute for the South China Sea Studies, Haikou, Hainan, China

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