Musings on the 20th Anniversary of the South China Sea Declaration

In November 2002, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, China and 10 ASEAN countries formally ratified the South China Sea Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC). In the history of China-ASEAN relations, as well as in the history of world relations, the development of the Declaration is a diplomatic milestone that demonstrates the collective wisdom and cooperative spirit of China and the ASEAN countries.

The international community is aware that over the past 20 years, China and the ASEAN countries have actively promoted the stabilization and improvement of the situation in the South China Sea by actively implementing the objectives and tenets of the Declaration and the maritime pragmatic cooperation arrangements proposed.

The neighbors of the South China Sea have taken the first step in establishing rules for the area’s law and order by signing the “Declaration.” The “Code of Conduct in the South China Sea” (COC) is a pact between China and the ASEAN countries that seeks to establish common ground while keeping differences, put a halt to interference, and be completed as soon as is practical. “Guidelines” to talk about a final draft that meets the demands of the parties.

The Importance of the Manifesto’s Term

Despite its briefness, the political statement “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea” seeks to handle the issue and promote cooperation. It does not have binding power, in contrast to international treaties. The practice in this area is highly important. It made a substantial contribution to the South China Sea’s relative calm for a considerable period of time after it was signed and before the US started putting its “Asia-Pacific Rebalancing” policy into practice.

The “Declaration” is a successful strategy employed by China and the ten ASEAN countries to manage and control the problems in the South China Sea through protocols, regulations, and norms without the intervention of outside forces. Since the late 1960s and early 1970s, China and Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and several other Southeast Asian countries have been at odds about the territorial sovereignty of different islands and reefs in the Nansha Islands and their claims of maritime jurisdiction.

The illegal occupation of islands and reefs by other claimant states, independent oil and gas extraction and production, and the illegal arrest of Chinese fishermen led to several maritime encounters and conflicts prior to the Declaration’s ratification. With the “Declaration,” China and the ASEAN countries took a historic step toward establishing rules to try to manage the situation in the South China Sea. a collection of rules for conduct and behavior as well as instruments for productive collaboration.

To promote cooperation, control tensions, and jointly advance peace and stability in the region, the Declaration has grown into a roadmap and programmatic declaration for the countries surrounding the South China Sea. As explicit is the clause stating that “the sovereign states directly concerned shall peacefully resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes through friendly consultation and negotiation” that states that “the sovereign states directly concerned shall maintain self-restraint and refrain from taking measures that complicate, amplify, or otherwise have an adverse effect on peace and stability.”

The “Declaration” specifically asks for collaboration in the fields of scientific research, waterway safety, search and rescue, and thwarting international crimes. Additionally, it asks for talks between defense and military authorities, voluntary disclosure of joint military exercises, and all of the aforementioned. It also calls for an end to the colonization of uninhabited islands and reefs.

The Declaration offers a solid foundation, which makes it logical to start discussing the Guidelines there. The “Code” and the “Declaration” are actually two parts of one coherent organism. All parties should regard the development of a “Code of Conduct in the South China Sea” as their ultimate goal as a “phased achievement” and a “early harvest” for China and ASEAN countries to establish regional standards in the South China Sea, according to the “Declaration.” frames of reference and negotiating frameworks The Declaration’s core codes of conduct and principles, avenues for dialogue and communication, and maritime cooperation initiatives served as the foundation for China and the ASEAN countries’ development of the “Code.”

What is revealed by the Declaration?

As indicated by the adoption and implementation of the Declaration, countries in the region are able to resolve maritime claims and jurisdictional disputes among themselves. Some claimant nations, especially non-regional nations, have long questioned whether China and the ASEAN countries can settle the complex problems in the South China Sea because to their own strategic concerns and interests. It is the primary option for settling conflicts in the South China Sea.

Over the last 20 years, China and the ASEAN countries have built mechanisms including the “Senior Officials Meeting” and the “Joint Working Group Meeting” to promote the implementation of the DOC. Because it demonstrates that China and the ASEAN countries are perfectly capable of addressing their differences, avoiding conflicts, and encouraging cooperation via institutional growth, maintaining the overall stability of the South China Sea situation is crucial.

The Declaration also offers a useful analysis of multilateralism for forging a peaceful and stable regional maritime system. There have never before been conflicts in the world that include as many countries, as many islands and reefs, and as much sea as those in the South China Sea. Due to its complicated historical background and realistic sensitivity, the DOC is not and cannot be a method for resolving disputes. China and the ASEAN countries reached an agreement on a “Declaration” through fair, equitable, and creative negotiations that supports regional multilateralism, lays out a strategy for handling and resolving maritime conflicts in the region through political agreement, and establishes “directly connected sovereignty.”

The “Declaration” also establishes a uniform procedure for encouraging marine cooperation and crisis management prior to settling disagreements. The signing and execution of the DOC serve as an effective illustration of multilateralism in the resolution of regional maritime concerns.

The 20 years after the signing of the Declaration have demonstrated that for countries in the region to address issues and enhance cooperation, consensus and mutual trust are essential. China and the ASEAN countries created steps to stop the growth and escalation of fishermen’s activities, diplomatic problems, and conflicts and conflicts brought on by the development of oil and gas resources during the first 10 years after the “Declaration” was signed. These actions were based on the understanding and confidence that had previously been established.

These guidelines, practices, and deeds have contributed somewhat to preserving tranquility and stability in the South China Sea. For unilateral actions like military drills that can cause regional unrest, they contain optional “communication” and “restraint” restrictions. Sadly, since 2012, the consensus and mutual confidence envisaged in the Declaration have been undermined by the extraterritorial activity of the US and many claimant states’ unilateral actions.

Out of self-interest and in contravention of the “state consent” idea, some claimant states have enforced obligatory arbitration, partnered with non-regional governments to conduct joint military exercises in vulnerable waters, and replaced cooperative development with unilateral actions. The original purpose of the “Declaration” and the consensus that arose from it have destroyed the foundation of mutual trust.

A new period and new difficulties necessitate a revised version of the Manifesto

The South China Sea has recently experienced the rise of new situations, challenges, and worries. It is crucial to offer an upgraded or expanded version of the DOC, also known as the “Code of Conduct in the South China Sea,” and to design new rules based on the DOC’s implementation. To ensure the stability and long-term expansion of China-ASEAN relations, which will benefit all parties involved in the South China Sea, the “Code” conversation is a joint mission of China and the ten ASEAN countries.

The advancement of the upgraded China-ASEAN relations will be aided by the “Guidelines”. China-ASEAN relations are shifting from “quantitative change” to “qualitative change” from the creation of the dialogue partnership 30 years ago to the launch of the comprehensive strategic partnership in 2022. Since the establishment of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area in 2010, China has ranked as ASEAN’s top economic partner, and since 2020, ASEAN has replaced China as China’s top commercial partner.

Even in the military and security sector, which has historically been a sore spot in bilateral relations, cooperation between the two sides has started to strengthen. Although the South China Sea issue does not encompass all aspects of China-ASEAN relations, it is unquestionably a “hurdle” that must be overcome in the course of developing these connections. The philosophy represented by the “Declaration” cannot be divorced from the continual improvement of economic and trade cooperation relations as well as the gradual growth of bilateral political ties. It is not advisable to use the discussion mechanism of the “Declaration’s” “escort”.

The preservation of “standards” is necessary for the long-term stability of the South China Sea. Since 2012, the South China Sea situation has become more difficult. Using diplomatic, military, and legal means, the United States and other countries from outside the region continue to advance their geopolitical interests in the region and engage in disputes involving the South China Sea. The US uses strategies like the “Indo-Pacific Strategy,” “Quartet Security Alliance,” and “Indo-Pacific Situational Awareness Partnership” to center China and the US in the South China Sea around military and diplomatic relations in an effort to contain China while maintaining its own dominance of the international order.

Competition in the law is getting fiercer. Similar to this, some claimant nations have continued to take unilateral actions, such as oil and gas development and island and reef expansion, to consolidate their maritime vested interests and claims, with the encouragement and support of the United States and the Philippines’ South China Sea arbitration case. In these trying times, it is more crucial than ever to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea, and only “guidelines” have the power to “heal the sea.”

The political mutual trust between China and ASEAN nations will suffer if the COC negotiations stall or are abandoned in the middle, as will the relationship with other claimant countries if they choose to pursue their own course on the South China Sea issue, making the South China Sea an even bigger game of great powers. chessboard. The only way to prevent these problems from getting worse is to use the “code” agreement as a springboard to hasten the creation of legislation and security measures in the South China Sea, therefore fostering long-term stability in the area.

Don’t put off negotiating the Code

China and the ASEAN countries are at a turning point in their “Code” discussions and must choose whether to go ahead or backward. What is the best way to publicize the “Code” consultation, then? Gaining mutual trust, coming to an understanding, looking for common ground while reserving disagreements, and moving rapidly are the best strategies.

First, cooperation between COCs is based on mutual trust. Through the “Code” discourse, which concentrates on crisis management, fostering mutual trust, and establishing maritime order, China and the 10 ASEAN countries are attempting to set norms for themselves. The “Guidelines” discourse, in particular, is founded on equality and respect for one another and seeks the greatest point of agreement to achieve shared goals. This is in keeping with the ideals described in the Declaration. Mutual trust is necessary for the “Code” negotiations in accordance with the principles of equality, respect, and awareness of one another’s concerns.

Second, the consultation process for the “Code” involves gradually coming to an understanding. It is crucial to note that certain claimant nations make an effort to maximize their own interests by unilaterally developing their oil and gas reserves and expanding their islands and reefs in the disputed regions during the “window period” before the “Code” text is agreed. These two concerns require agreement between China and the ASEAN nations.

But doing so not only makes it more difficult for the “Code” consultation to proceed in an orderly manner, it also has a negative effect on the environment that the consultation needs to thrive, which is consistent with the cooperative spirit that was encouraged during the implementation of the Declaration and the establishment of the “Code” consultation. A goal is the polar opposite of a purpose.

Third, the principle of “finding common ground while reserving differences” must be followed during the negotiations of the “Code.” Since China and the ASEAN countries, notably the claimants, have their own strategic concerns and interest demands on the South China Sea dispute, disagreements over suggestions or conflicts of interest would likely arise during the COC discussion. The “Guidelines”‘ objectives, principles, legal implications, and manner of application should all be understood by all parties. At the same time, in the spirit of “finding common ground while reserving differences,” disputes should be settled by diplomatic dialogue.

Fourth, “splitting issues and taking modest steps.” The leaders of China and ASEAN must quickly reach a consensus on the “Code.” Parties may argue as the second and third readings go on significant and complex issues such the nature of the Guidelines, the scope of the situation, and how they relate to the DOC.

Progress has been made from the beginning of the “Guidelines” consultation in 2013 to the completion of a single text and the first round of reading in 2019. However, future consultations will face challenges due to the influence of the international environment on the negotiation of the code of conduct as well as interference from outside forces.

As a safety valve and stabilizer for ASEAN ties, the South China Sea and China should be used, and China and ASEAN nations should take advantage of the chance to settle disputes, stop meddling, move the COC talks along step by step, and present an effective solution to the problems.

The islands and reefs of the Nansha Islands are at the focus of a dispute over maritime jurisdiction and territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea. Furthermore, it is a difficult and complex issue that, if handled incorrectly, might damage bilateral ties. It is crucial to remember that the South China Sea conflict has lately evolved into a “lever” or “lever” that external powers may periodically use to stir up tensions between China and ASEAN.

The two primary issues facing China’s current South China Sea diplomacy are how to “deleverage” the issue in relations with the US and how to diminish the sensitivity of the issue in relations with ASEAN. This can only be achieved if China and the ASEAN countries are firmly united, exercise restraint when taking unilateral actions that could jeopardize the security and stability of the South China Sea, maintain an open and pragmatic mindset when implementing the DOC, and take a more proactive approach and consider the bigger picture when negotiating the COC. Long-term peace and stability in the South China Sea region would support the steady and long-term expansion of China-ASEAN relations.

Raihan Ronodipuro
Raihan Ronodipuro
Raihan Ronodipuro holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the prestigious School of Public Policy & Management at Tsinghua University, China. His academic journey was propelled by the esteemed Chinese MOFCOM Scholarship, leading him to successfully attain a Master of Law in International Relations from the School of International and Public Affairs at Jilin University, China. With a rich background, Raihan has also contributed as an Associate Researcher in the Department of Politics and Security at the Center for Indonesia-China Studies (CICS). Currently, he plays a pivotal role as a member of the International Relations Commission within the Directorate of Research and Studies for the Overseas Indonesian Students' Association Alliance (OISAA) for the term 2022/2023.