COC framework in the South China Sea based on regional consensus

By Li Kaisheng Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/14 20:18:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The US and some other countries often advocate for a so-called "rule-based order" in the South China Sea (SCS) and imply that China is a country that does not conform to international rules. However, when China and ASEAN foreign ministers adopted on August 6 the framework of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the SCS, foreign ministers of the US, Japan and Australia did not praise them but issued a statement condemning China, and suggested that China wants to control this region.

The specific content of this framework document remains unknown since the negotiation has not yet been completed. But it is certain that the finalized COC in the SCS will be more specific, and may have more political and legal validity. Obviously, the future order of the SCS will be based on current recognized international rules and norms, but it may not be the order that the West wants.

Regional order first requires the countries in the region to build and maintain it. Big powers outside the region should play a constructive rather than destructive role. After the approval of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002, the SCS was mostly stable and China exercised restraint.

An important reason for the troubles that were stirred up a few years ago is that the Obama administration, under the so-called Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy, intervened in the SCS issue and instigated claimants to confront China. Therefore, the measures taken by China under this context should be regarded as a legitimate reaction to its damaged strategic and tactical interests.

From this point of view, the adoption of the COC framework in the SCS has symbolic significance.

First, it means ASEAN has gained more autonomy. In the future, countries in the region are expected to move beyond mutual confrontation caused by external incitement and choose a peaceful way to solve problems according to the interests and characteristics of the region.

Second, the basic stability of the SCS over the past year has depended on the positive efforts of China, the Philippines and other countries. The adoption of the framework is conducive to realizing the collective wishes of countries in the region, which is crucial to lasting stability and peace in the SCS. The adoption also means that relevant parties have taken a solid first step toward constructing the SCS order based on rules.

Of course, what codes of conduct will eventually be formed remains to be discussed by specific parties. I believe that no matter what the guidelines are, it is very important that the future of the SCS order should reflect the following ideas.

The first is equality. Some ASEAN countries are drawn to US intervention partly because of their concerns about asymmetries with China's strength. Though their concerns are not based on facts, it is necessary for China to take this more into account and try to resolve it. On the other hand, ASEAN countries shouldn't pressure China in negotiations by banding together, which also is a form of inequality.

The second is balance, that is, balancing the propositions, interests and concerns of all sides. Some ASEAN countries blindly oppose China's nine-dash line claim while they don't allow any objections to their own claims. They want to set specific rules only to constrain China. If the future COC only focuses on limiting one party, it cannot really play an effective role.

The third is openness. The new order of the SCS is mainly committed to resolving differences within the region. It will only benefit rather than damage freedom of navigation. It will not endanger the legitimate interests of other countries in this region. At the same time, countries outside the region should place themselves in a correct position and have a proper attitude. It is understandable that the US wants to stay in Southeast Asia, but it should be achieved by supporting regional stability rather than undermining regional self-governance.

The author is an research fellow at the Institute of International Relations, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion


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