Peace pact aims for smoother waters
special report: Asean meet makes progress on South China Sea code, writes Thana Boonlert
The Asean-China Ministerial Meeting culminated last month with the early completion of the Single Draft Negotiating Text of the Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea. The peace pact has been hailed as a beacon of hope for the long-troubled sea, with a bounty of oil and gas, a fishing ground, and a shipping route.
In recent months, maritime conflicts in the South China Sea have flared up and instilled fear of turning the area into a flashpoint between countries.
The latest incident is the standoff between Vietnamese and Chinese ships near an oil block in the disputed area.
In June, a Chinese trawler collided with a Philippine fishing boat in Reed Bank within the West Philippines Sea. Crewmen were later rescued by a Vietnamese fishing vessel.
China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan have competing claims over the waterway. However, China has laid the "nine-dash line" claim over the largest portion of the area, built artificial islands, and sent out naval patrols.
Meanwhile, the United States has sent military ships and planes to conduct freedom of navigation operations.
The emerging document marks the first step towards meeting the goal of concluding a legally-binding CoC within three years.
However, foreign experts cast a wary glance at the situation.
China and claimant states are still a long way off shedding their ties to external powers and overlapping claims.
SEA OF PEACE
Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said most Asean members are satisfied with the first reading of the Single Draft Negotiating Text of the CoC despite concerns about ongoing local incidents.
"Let us put it this way, some [countries] might be more serious than others. We know things are incremental. You can't expect a total change in the situation. [However] what matters is that we exercise self-restraint. We have to try our best and put our heads together," he told the press conference after the 26th Asean Regional Forum (ARF) on Aug 2.
Mr Don chaired the ARF during the 52nd Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting 2019 (AMM) held in Bangkok last month.
The forum discussed security issues, including trade tension, the situation in Rakhine state, and the Korean Peninsula.
Mr Don reiterated the stance of Thailand, which is among non-claimant states, on the turbulent sea.
"Thailand has advocated the notion of turning the South China Sea into a sea of peace, stability, and sustainable development since we started the proposition three years ago. I believe the South China Sea is still there. Nobody would like to see the situation decline or worsen. We all hope there will be some improvements in the area," he said.
The Chinese diplomat, who asked not to be named, hailed the milestone in mapping out the peace pact due to China and Asean's commitment. However, he insisted China will settle disputes with the bloc only through bilateral channels.
"We expect all sides to respect and support the CoC negotiation process. However, some external powers don't want to see stability in the region. They are sending ships and planes to show their muscle. We hope they will play a constructive role," he told the Bangkok Post after the Asean-China Ministerial Meeting.
When asked how China and Asean will resolve overlapping claims, the Chinese envoy stressed the CoC seeks only to maintain maritime order in the South China Sea.
"We can't share details with media. However, we are proceeding ahead of the schedule. It shows that regional countries have the capability and political will to move forward without any outside interference.
"The purpose of the CoC is to promote peace and stability. Disputes have to be solved through bilateral negotiations by peaceful means. Obviously, people can't expect the CoC to address [territorial] issues," he said.
When asked whether maritime incidents will hamper the CoC negotiation process, the Chinese envoy asked parties to refrain from raising issues multilaterally and outsiders to avoid escalating tension.
"It is normal for problems to arise from existing disputes. In that case, all parties should play a constructive role to control disputes, not to bring them through multilateral channels. While regional countries are making efforts, we need support from the outside force not to disrupt the process and seek interests," he said.
When asked about Asean being forced to choose between great powers, the Chinese envoy replied briefly that China has joined Asean with common development in mind.
"We don't want Asean to take sides. We are not pursuing any geographical programme in this part of the world. We don't wish other major powers to pursue political interests in this region. As East Asia is the fastest-growing region, we should maintain this kind of momentum by creating a peaceful and stable environment for everybody," he added.
Nevertheless, the situation in the contested South China Sea has far-reaching repercussions for non-claimant countries, including Australia. In 2017, Australia released a Foreign Policy White Paper to set out its plan for international engagement with the Indo-Pacific over the next decade.
Mark Coulton, the Australian assistant trade and investment minister, took note of friction regarding the waterway. "Our products come through the area, for instance, petroleum. Anything that disrupts the flow of commodities is a huge concern for us," he said in a press briefing hosted by the Asean International Media Visit Programme.
He reiterated the importance of Asean for Australia. "We want an open, inclusive, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region where disputes are resolved peacefully according to international law. We want trade, capital, and ideas to flow freely," he said.
The government official stressed the need for Australia to uphold the rules-based order rather than using force in the resolution of maritime disputes. "Australia has a positive and substantial interest in the stability of the South China Sea. We strongly support the freedom of navigation and overflight. We discourage actions by any party that escalates tension that might give rise to friction in the region," he said.
NEW WORLD ORDER
"The row in the South China Sea erupts in the context of international politics. The world is being reordered. China is expanding and seeking to dominate the maritime sphere. On the other hand, the US is challenging its assertion, Sihasak Phuangketkeow, the former permanent secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told the Bangkok Post.
The former ambassador of Thailand to Japan and France said the competition between great powers adds fuel to the existing conflict in the South China Sea. "US President Donald Trump considers China a major geopolitical rival. As China gets in the way of its interests in the region, the US backs the bloc's hardening of its stance," he said.
Mr Sihasak indicated the resolution of territorial disputes will be longer than expected. "It might take a decade because claims over the turbulent water involve issues of sovereignty and natural resources," he said. He cast doubt on whether implementing the mechanisms would work. "Many instruments have been put in place. For example, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) stipulates that each coastal country can exercise its sovereignty in the 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
"The legally-binding CoC will carry weight with stakeholders. However, it will not come to fruition if parties do not act. We have to wait and see whether the CoC stipulates ways to proceed with violations. After all, it is based on [competing] national interests.
"Moreover, the authority does not exist to enforce the CoC. There are no police. We have seen previous failures. For instance, the Philippines submitted the case to a UN tribunal under the Unclos [in 2013] to challenge China's claim. Then the court decided that China violated the Philippines' sovereign rights. However, China rejected the ruling," he said.
Nonetheless, Mr Sihasak voiced his support for Thailand, the chair of Asean, in enhancing confidence and trust because it would pave the way for cooperation. "We should not allow the contentious South China Sea to determine the overall outlook of the region. Asean can work with China while the settlement of maritime disputes is ongoing," he said.
He proposed joint development of the South China Sea be considered. "The Malaysia-Thailand Joint Development Area (JDA) can be a case study. In the past, we had overlapping claims over the continental shelf in the lower Gulf. In 1979, we signed an agreement for a joint authority to exploit maritime resources. I know it is more difficult in the case of the South China Sea because it involves more than two claimant states, but it might set a positive trend," he said.