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Avoiding the Escalation of Conflicts in the South China Sea

2017-06-25 14:49:10       source:NISCSS

This is a speech delivered by NISCSS President Wu Shicun at the 6th World Peace Forum, which was co-organized by  Tsinghua University and Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs in Beijing on 24-25 June 2017.


Ladies and gentlemen:


Good morning! Since the second half of 2016, the South China Sea has witnessed a steady progress towards amelioration and détente, as well as a return to the trajectory of cooperation. This could be attributed to the conclusion of the arbitration case, China’s suspension of the reclamation of South China Sea reefs and islands, and the enhanced bilateral and multilateral consultations between China and disputant countries as well as ASEAN.


At the bilateral level, China and disputant countries are making active efforts in returning to the right track of bilateral consultation as well as promoting pragmatic cooperation at sea. On May 19, 2017, China and the Philippines held the first meeting of a bilateral consultation mechanism on the South China Sea issue in Guiyang, which confirmed the establishment of such biannual bilateral consultation mechanism. This institutionalized platform is intended to build trust and confidence, bolster maritime cooperation, enhance maritime security, and seek for a final settlement of the disputes. Meanwhile, China and other disputant countries are gradually giving up the zero-sum mindset featured by competition and conflict, and seek to strengthen cooperation on maritime security and law enforcement. So far, China coast guard has signed memorandum of understanding with its Philippine and Vietnamese counterparts. It is also holding active consultations with Malaysian and Indonesian maritime law enforcement agencies regarding enhancing bilateral cooperation.


At the multilateral level, in July 2016, China and ten ASEAN countries issued a joint statement on the full and effective implementation of the declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea (DOC). This statement reiterated that the South China Sea disputes shall be resolved by peaceful means, and “through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned.” In September 2016, at the 19th China-ASEAN Summit, leaders from China and ASEAN countries reviewed and approved the Guidelines for Hotline Communications among Senior Officials of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of China and ASEAN Member States in Response to Maritime Emergencies, and issued the Joint Statement on the Application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea in the South China Sea. These two important documents provide institutional guarantee for China and ASEAN countries to manage and control contingencies in the South China Sea, so as to avoid the emergence of maritime conflicts or escalation of tensions. In May this year, during the 14th senior officials' meeting on the implementation of the DOC, China and ASEAN countries agreed on a draft framework for the code of conduct in the South China Sea (COC), marking an important progress in the COC consultation process.


Though the South China Sea in general is relatively quiet and stable at present, there are still many uncertainties, and even negative factors, which may complicate the situation in the future. For example, the South China Sea arbitration award, which has changed the rules of the game. Based on the award, disputant countries may shift their focus to effective control and jurisdiction over maritime spaces through various means, such as to expand their maritime presence by military or civilian forces, strengthen maritime law enforcement, and unilaterally exploit resources. Extra-regional forces like the US and Japan may also take advantage of the award of the South China Sea arbitration to challenge China’s claims and rights in the South China Sea.


Apart from the arbitral award, I would like to highlight another two factors.


The first and foremost is the continued China-US competition. For the US, getting involved in the South China Sea issue is critical in demonstrating and maintaining its supremacy in Asia-Pacific region, and particularly in the West Pacific. Therefore, no matter how the Trump administration would adjust the U.S. global and Asia-Pacific strategies, the geopolitical competition between China and the U.S. in the South China Sea would remain. The military competition as part of those strategies, and even some forms of military confrontation provoked by the US, will become a salient feature in the South China Sea.


Secondly, Japan is becoming a new variable in the development of the South China Sea situation. Japan considers the South China Sea as a maritime lifeline which is critical to its energy import and trade channel security. In addition, the South China Sea issue has become a convenient excuse for Japan to seek for greater influence on regional affairs and expand its military presence, in line with its own ambition to become a major political and military power. In May 2017, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force sent a helicopter destroyer JS Izumo to the South China Sea, thus began Japan’s largest overseas military operation since World War II. In June, JS Izumo joined the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan supercarrier for a joint drill, and invited military officers from the 10 ASEAN countries for a four day tour in the South China Sea. On June 3, while attending the most recent Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada reiterated that Japan supports the Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) by the US Navy, and will conduct joint cruise training with the US in the South China Sea. In the future, Japan may further strengthen its military presence, expand financial support and arms sale to disputant countries as the Philippines and Vietnam, thus interfere into the South China Sea issue in an all-round way. Given the political mutual trust deficit, military strategic antagonism, and lack of a crisis management and controlling mechanism, Japan’s increasing military presence in the South China Sea will inevitably increase the risk of military conflicts with China.


Next, I would like to discuss four factors that may influence the further development of the South China Sea situation.


The first one is that in the name conducting FONOPs, the US will continue to challenge China’s claims and rights in the South China Sea. On May 5, before the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, the Trump administration conducted its first FONOPs in the South China Sea by sending the USS Dewey, a Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, within 12 nautical miles of the Mischief Reef. On June 3, Secretary of Defense James Mattis remarked at the Shangri-La Dialogue that the US will continue FONOPs in the South China Sea. At the first China-US Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked that the US position on the South China Sea remains unchanged and that the US opposes changes to the status quo. Therefore, despite possible adjustment in sea areas and operational manners, the US FONOPs in the South China Sea will not be given up or put to an end. The US will also conduct more close-in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance activities against China, in the name of exercising freedom navigation. It is foreseeable that the contention between China and US over these issues will increase.


The second factor is about the US, Japan and other extra-regional powers’ continued hype-up about China’s “militarization” in the South China Sea for its land reclamation activities and facility deployment on South China Sea features. To provide public services, China will continue to deploy facilities for civilian purposes. Based on security assessment and for self-defense purposes, China will also deploy necessary military assets. Yet, since 2014, Japan and the United States have intentionally hyped up the China "militarization" of the South China Sea features, alleging that China's island development efforts are intended for military purposes only, which will change the status quo of the region. On 3 June 2017, at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the defense ministers of the two countries again accused China’s “militarization” of South China Sea features for undermining regional stability. It seems that extra-regional powers, especially the US and Japan, will not easily stop heaping pressure on China. Instead, they will continue to put blames on China's land reclamation and facilities deployment for "militarizing" the South China Sea, and may take countermeasures when opportunities avail themselves.


The third one is the potential influence of the award of the South China Sea arbitration case, which should not to be ignored. Thanks to a series of timely and effective responses from China in diplomacy and public opinion, the South China Sea has been witnessing relatively stable situations after the Award was released. However, the US, Japan, Australia and some other extra-regional countries would not reconcile themselves with the fact that the Award is a “scrap of paper” for China. Nor will they let go opportunities to make use of the “Award” to challenge China’s rights and to expand their military presence in the South China Sea. At the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, all of them reiterated their position that the Award is legally binding, and urge relevant countries to abide by the Award. When occasion permits, disputant countries may also make use of the Award to deny China’s historic rights over living and non-ling resources within the U-shape line. In order to do so, they may take unilateral moves to further fortify or militarize the features that they have occupied, expand their control of maritime space, and exploit hydrocarbon or fishing resources.


The fourth one is about the COC consultation. Although China and ASEAN have reached consensus on the draft framework of COC, with the deepening of the COC consultation, disputes may loom larger over key terms of the COC. Hence, it would be more difficult to reach further consensus, and even a deadlock may arise.


Ladies and gentlemen, the hard-earned peace and stability of the South China Sea should not be taken for granted. Regional countries should endeavor to jointly maintain the positive trend in the South China Sea, while extra-regional powers should do their share in not disrupting the virtuous dynamism among littoral countries of the South China Sea. To this end, I would like to make four proposals.


First of all, China and the US should establish an effective and integrated mechanism to manage potential crisis in the South China sea. Currently, we’ve already had several mechanisms in place, such as notification of major military activities as well as a military hotline and rules of behavior for the safety of air and maritime encounters. However, those mechanisms are all voluntary and non-binding.And the new reality is that (as the US senior maritime analyst Mark Valencia sharply pointed out), China-US encounter over the US ISR activities has become a "new normal", and most of them are "not unplanned, unintentional, or even unexpected." In response to the perceived threats from the US and its allies, China is unlikely to give up military deployment on South China Sea features. Such vicious cycle probably will give rise to miscalculations, contingencies and even conflict at sea. Therefore, in line with establishing “a new model of great power relationships,” the two sides should seek to establish an integrated mechanism, involving various tracks such as diplomacy, civilian forces, military, just name a few, so as to address those potential problems and crisis effectively.


Secondly, China and ASEAN should work together to exclude external interferences, speed up the COC consultation, and put into place the China-ASEAN track of the “dual-track approach”, which is to jointly safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea. While being fully aware of the complexity and difficulties of the COC consultation, relevant countries should draw up a feasible timetable and roadmap in achieving the final version of COC. Meanwhile, China and ASEAN should work on a regional crisis management and control mechanism that fully engages and is jointly led by the littoral countries of the South China Sea, rather than unwisely welcome the interference of external powers.


Thirdly, China and disputant countries should exercise self-restraint, and avoid unilateral exploration and exploitation of natural resources in disputed areas. Instead, we should seek to shelve disputes, and endeavor to find consensus on how to conduct pragmatic cooperation in the South China Sea. Given the complicity and sensitivity of the South China Sea issue, it seems neither feasible nor realistic to resolve the disputes in the short term. Thus, shelving disputes and seeking for pragmatic cooperation is the only way to maximize gains of all parties. We should seek for means to effectively conduct cooperation in those five areas under the framework of DOC. And a multilateral cooperation mechanism among the littoral states of the South China Sea on marine environmental protection and sustainable use of living resources could be one of options for us to start to work on. Through such a mechanism, we could focus on the cooperation in the restoration of coral reefs, fishing resources and the biodiversity of the South China Sea, which are also pressing regional issues.


Fourthly, China and disputant countries should also actively seek for means of implementing the other track of the “dual-track approach”, that is to properly address the South China Sea disputes through negotiations and consultations among countries directly concerned. To this end, disputant countries should establish bilateral mechanism to enhance cooperation, build confidence, manage potential conflicts and create a friendly environment that is conducive to solving the disputes. Thus far, China and the Philippines have established such a bilateral mechanism on safeguarding maritime security and promoting pragmatic cooperation. China-Vietnam and China-Malaysia may also need to consider the possibility of establishing similar mechanisms as well.


Ladies and gentlemen, whether the peace and stability of the South China Sea could last depend on the concerted efforts of claimant states, ASEAN as well as extra-regional countries, the US and Japan in particular. Any party insists its own way without taking others’ concerns into consideration risks undermining regional stability. We should bear this in mind.


Thank you for your attention.