DOC and code of conduct to prevent S.China Sea becoming a battlefield for major powers
Published: Jul 26, 2022 07:46 PM
South China Sea Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

South China Sea Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). 

Although the DOC does not have a legally binding force like international treaties, for quite a long time it has played an irreplaceable role in stabilizing the situation in the South China Sea and managing differences over time. 

The 1990s was a special period when the situation in the South China Sea kept changing. At that time, China and ASEAN countries had not yet established an institutionalized dialogue platform to deal with the South China Sea issue. 

From the early phase of the 1990s, I had in-depth discussions with then Indonesian ambassador Hasjim Djalal at many international conferences about the South China Sea. The Workshop on Managing Potential Conflicts in the South China Sea launched by him was a non-official dialogue channel for regional countries and played a positive role in advancing the signing of the DOC. In the future, no matter whether it is the implementation of the DOC or the negotiations on the Code of Conduct, or the establishment of trust measures regarding the South China Sea issue and preventive diplomacy, the wisdom and strength of think tank scholars is always needed.

ASEAN is an important neighbor of China. China and ASEAN have become each other's largest trading partners, and the bilateral relationship has also been upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership. Although the South China Sea issue does not constitute the whole of China-ASEAN relations, it is a sensitive one that will affect bilateral relations if not handled properly. It is a "lever" with which external forces can undermine China-ASEAN relations.

How to prevent the South China Sea issue from having a negative impact on China-ASEAN relations has become an important task which is to be dealt with by Chinese diplomacy. For the moment, China and ASEAN countries are at a crossroads of negotiations on a "code." The article 10 of the DOC reads that "the Parties concerned reaffirm that the adoption of a code of conduct in the South China Sea would further promote peace and stability in the region and agree to work, on the basis of consensus, towards the eventual attainment of this objective." This means "adoption" of the code of conduct is the ultimate goal. If negotiations on the code are left unfinished halfway, the DOC won't be carried out, mutual trust between China and ASEAN members will be negatively impacted, and the South China Sea will once again become an arena of major power games. 

Therefore, the only way to avoid the above problem is to promote maritime cooperation under the framework of the DOC in a more pragmatic manner, and at the same time to accelerate the construction of rules and security mechanisms in the South China Sea with the code consultation as a starting point, so as to achieve long-term peace and stability in the South China Sea.

In a sense, the code will act as a preventive diplomatic measure and crisis management mechanism. Equal consultations between China and the 11 ASEAN countries are like members of a big family who make their own rules to restrain themselves. Such heart-to-heart consultations cannot take place without mutual trust. Consensus is the logical starting point and necessary premise for building a multilateral mechanism like the code. 

China and ASEAN countries have their own strategic considerations, interests and demands on the South China Sea issue. It is inevitable that during the negotiation process, there will be short-term disagreement. At that time, seeking common ground while setting aside differences, and necessary concessions or compromises are both the art of diplomatic negotiation and the promotion of progress. 

In a word, the implementation of the DOC and the code of conduct is the only choice for China and ASEAN countries to build a beautiful homeland for all in the South China Sea. Only by moving toward a common goal, overcoming difficulties and moving forward can we finally succeed.

The author is President of the National Institute for the South China Sea Studies. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn