At a press conference in Singapore on August 3, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi revealed that China and ASEAN would seek an agreement as early as possible on setting up “a China-ASEAN hotline platform for maritime search and rescue” and “a China-ASEAN senior foreign officials’ hotline platform on emergencies”.
These remarks are the latest efforts between China and ASEAN in enhancing practical cooperation and defusing tension in the South China Sea. In November last year, Chinese Defense Minister General Chang Wanquan made a similar proposal to set up a China-ASEAN defense hotline at the Xiangshan Forum in Beijing.
China and ASEAN are negotiating a code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, as a follow-up to the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) signed between China and ASEAN in 2002. Since then more than a dozen of talks have been conducted with the aim to have a sort of “early harvest”.
The China-ASEAN hotline platform for maritime search and rescue is easier to set up, since the issues are mostly technical. But the emergency hotline platform is far more complicated. The first thing to do, presumably, is for all parties to agree on what constitutes “emergencies”.
It seems obvious they should include ships and aircraft of China and ASEAN countries in dangerously close encounters, or even accidents arising thereafter. Nevertheless, there could be a situation in which one party doesn’t take a given situation urgent and therefore is reluctant to talk to the other party. This may be particularly true when it happens to be a “sovereignty” issue. For example, Vietnam could take China’s oil drilling near the Xisha islands in 2014 as an emergency situation, but China would perceive oil drilling in those waters – an indispensable part of the Chinese territory — as perfectly all right. China could instead view Vietnam’s harassment of the oil rig as an emergency situation. The same debate would arise if construction on a reef or land reclamation by one country is regarded as illegal by another country.
Compared with China’s confidence-building measures (CBM) with other countries, engaging with ASEAN is more challenging. The reason is: Although the China-ASEAN relationship looks bilateral, it is indeed multilateral. In any accident or crisis that involves China and an ASEAN country, theoretically ASEAN’s Secretary-General would be the most appropriate person to pick up the phone since he represents ASEAN. But he can hardly be the first person liable. If Vietnam has a problem with China, why doesn’t Vietnam talk directly to China first? And why can’t they talk on the bilateral hotline that is already established? If Vietnam and China have to talk on the ASEAN platform, the only significance is for other countries to be informed of the situation. But would China agree if this happens to be a territorial dispute? China and ASEAN have agreed, as written in the DOC, that disputes will be negotiated by sovereign states directly concerned. In other words, states not concerned with the disputes should not be involved.
The emergency hotline may take time to set up, too. ASEAN has decided to establish a defense hotline among its 10 member states — a reminder that ASEAN has many problems of its own. Brunei is leading the work, but it doesn’t look likely that ASEAN is going to set up the hotline by the end of 2015, as it is proposed. The reason is that the same problems mentioned above will also haunt ASEAN countries. Apart from possible accidents at sea and in air, most of them have territorial disputes with one another. Therefore it would be difficult for the Chinese government or the Chinese military to establish a hotline with ASEAN before ASEAN figures out how to establish a platform among its member states.
A hotline, being rapid, reliable and confidential, is the most efficient instrument for sharing information and easing conflict. Setting up hotlines between China and the 10 ASEAN countries is also technically feasible given the advance in information technology nowadays. If the political considerations are resolved, the lines can be set up as soon as possible. They can therefore become the best fruits of the “early harvest”. They also carry a no less important symbolism: the consensus of China and ASEAN that the South China Sea issue is not an issue between them as a whole and a hope that cooperation (search and rescue) and crisis management (emergencies) could go hand in hand in the China-ASEAN relationship.