China and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are making progress in efforts to reduce tensions and build a less contentious relationship. The 11 governments produced a draft code of conduct for the South China Sea, a document nearly two decades in the making. In addition, last week they held the inaugural ASEAN-China maritime exercise, which is intended to become a regular feature of their relationship. These developments are welcome. At the same time, however, those parties must also recognize that the South China Sea is an international waterway that has great significance for many other countries. They, too, must have some say in the legal regime that emerges.
The disputes between China and rival claimants — Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam — over water and territory in the South China Sea are well known. The controversies fester, however, because there is no consensus among Southeast Asian governments on how to deal with China. As a result, Beijing engages each disputant bilaterally and brings to bear its superior military and economic power to impose its preferred solution.
In 2002, ASEAN and China agreed on a “declaration on a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.” It called for self-restraint, the peaceful resolution of disputes and confidence building measures. It was, however, a “declaration,” not a code of conduct and thus lacked the force of law. As a result, it has been violated as much as it has been honored, with countries — and especially China — building up, fortifying and militarizing territory that they claim.
The result has been steadily rising tension and belated acknowledgement that a genuine code of conduct is needed. Last week, foreign ministers from China and ASEAN announced they had agreed on a negotiating text for the code of conduct. Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, the chair of the meeting, called the draft a “major achievement.” Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alan Cayetano expressed hope that a final document will be ready for a leaders’ summit in November, but that is likely too optimistic.
In addition to the diplomatic breakthrough, China and ASEAN last week also held a joint military exercise. There have been previous exercises for Chinese and Southeast Asian militaries, but this was the first in which all 10 ASEAN members — and only those 11 countries — participated. Last week’s drill, in the works since late last year, was a table-top exercise and is a precursor to a field-training exercise that is scheduled to be held in October.
Such exercises are good things. They are confidence-building measures that promote transparency, facilitate communications and build trust. The South China Sea has some of the most congested waterways in the world and regional militaries need to be able to work together to deal with crises and contingencies, such as search-and-rescue operations or counter-terrorism efforts.
Last week’s drill is not an unalloyed good, however. The readiness of ASEAN governments to join the exercise despite China’s deployment of heavy military equipment, bombers and other aircraft to disputed territory looks like acquiescence to that program. The draft code of conduct reportedly calls for regular drills by China and ASEAN in the South China Sea but stipulates that the drills should not involve countries outside the region “unless the parties concerned are notified beforehand and express no objection.”
China similarly insisted that only Chinese and ASEAN companies carry out joint oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea, and that firms from countries outside the region be excluded.
This message is consistent with Beijing’s belief that the South China Sea is of no concern to outside governments — a message directed primarily at the United States, which regularly conducts freedom of navigation exercises to assert that right and to signal that the South China Sea is an international legal concern. The U.S. is not the only country hurt by China’s position, however. As the 2017 edition of Japan’s defense white paper notes, “Maritime security is of critical importance to Japan, a maritime nation surrounded by sea. … Japan relies on sea transport to import energy resources. Accordingly, ensuring secure sea lanes is vital for the survival of the nation.” It is estimated that 85 percent to 90 percent of Japan’s oil imports, and 33 percent of its liquefied natural gas imports traverse sea lines of communication in the South China Sea.
While we applaud ASEAN’s efforts to reach a modus vivendi with China on these issues and demonstrate that it remains relevant and the focus of regional diplomacy, it is vitally important to recognize the stakes that other countries have in regional outcomes.