“Taking Baby Steps in the South China Sea”, a Commentary by Hoang Thi Ha

Commentary 2016/58, 8 September 2016

As tensions rise in the South China Sea (SCS) and durable solutions to resolve disputes remain elusive, ASEAN and China are turning to diplomatic tools to lower the risk of armed clashes. The challenge is to ensure that these tools are up to the task, and to this end they should be taken seriously and implemented in good faith.

Two deliverables along this line were adopted at the 19th ASEAN-China Summit on 7 September in Vientiane: a guideline on hotline communications among the foreign ministries in response to maritime emergencies (MFA hotline); and a joint statement on the application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) in the SCS.

The MFA hotline is intended to provide immediate 24/7 policy-level intervention in response to maritime emergencies relating to the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). What constitutes “maritime emergencies” may be vague but this is still a positive development nonetheless. This hotline provides MFA senior officials, who may not necessarily wield operational control over military assets on the ground, a timely and immediate mechanism for direct communication in the event of an untoward incident. The hotline is preventive in purpose but confidence-building in nature.

The joint statement on application of CUES in the SCS is another early-harvest measure that could help de-escalate tensions in the area. Originally adopted by the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) in 2014, CUES provides communication and manoeuvring procedures among naval vessels and aircraft when they operate in close proximity.

A positive development in its own right, the ASEAN-China CUES is however not without its limitations. It is not legally binding and not applicable to coast guard vessels although most incidents in the SCS thus far have involved maritime law enforcement forces instead of navies. A recent study by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) reveals that Chinese maritime law enforcement vessels were involved in 68% out of 45 major incidents in the SCS from 2010-2016, which points to the possible irrelevance of the ASEAN-China CUES in handling this problem.

These risk-reduction measures have been prioritised as low-hanging fruits since the prospect of early conclusion of the Code of Conduct in the SCS (COC) remains slim. The so-called “fast-tracking of the COC process” announced by China in July is not as fast as it may seem. In actuality, what China has committed to by mid-2017 is to conclude the COC framework, which is at best an outline or skeletal structure, and not the COC itself. Such a framework would be quite modest given the considerable length of the COC process which would have spanned for four years by 2017. Therefore, ASEAN and China will have a mountain to climb when they begin negotiating the specific terms of the COC.
China’s overture is a manoeuvre that provides the semblance of progress designed to nudge ASEAN towards a narrative set by China while keeping outside countries’ involvement at bay – a crucial condition set by the Chinese. It will also effectively silence references to the Arbitral Tribunal’s award, which might be a game-changer in the SCS disputes. The jury is still out on whether China’s commitment to the COC framework is yet another tactic to buy time or if it is sincere at moving forward toward concluding the COC.

Pending the conclusion of the COC which will most likely be a marathon and not a 100- metre sprint, ASEAN countries should continue to engage China in de-escalating tensions and reducing miscalculations. Follow-up activities, such as sorting out technicalities in operationalising the MFA hotline or convening CUES exercises, should be pursued to ensure that these initiatives measure up when they are tested. Another possible measure is to extend the direct communications link (DCL) which is being established among ASEAN defence ministers to their counterpart in China.

Keeping peace and stability in the SCS is still a long game even beyond the COC. Establishing a web of confidence-building and preventive diplomacy measures is always an indispensable part of this uphill journey.

Ms Hoang Thi Ha is Fellow at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.