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To Enhance Military Confidence in the South China Sea Needed More Institutional Arrangements

2019-12-13 21:23:47       source:NISCSS

Remarks of NISCSS President Wu Shicun at the Workshop on Building Military-to-Military Confidence in the South China Sea

13 December 2019, Haikou


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good Morning!


China and Southeast Asia enjoy geographical proximity, similar cultures and people-to-people exchanges that can be traced back to a long time ago. In the evolution of history, we have built tested good neighborliness featuring peaceful and common development.


Since the establishment of the Dialogue Relations after the end of the Cold War in 1991, China-ASEAN relations have gone through a full Dialogue Partnership in 1996, a good-neighborly partnership of mutual trust oriented to the 21st century in 1997, a strategic partnership for peace and prosperity in 2003, and in recent years have reached a new era of substantive development.


In the nearly three decades, China and ASEAN countries have also come a long way in trade, investment and people-to-people exchanges. For example, the two-way trade rose from US$7.96 billion in 1991 to US$587.8 billion in 2018. The China-ASEAN Free Trade Area was agreed in 2010 and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is expected to be reached in 2020. The number of mutual visits increased from less than 3 million at the beginning of this new century to 57 million in 2018, making China ASEAN’s No.1 source of tourists. By August 2019, the stock of two-way investment was around US$230 billion.


Some academics argue that despite the rapidly-growing trade, investment and people-to-people exchanges, China and ASEAN countries still suffer trust deficit on military and security due to some regional issues such as the South China Sea disputes. However, I would maintain that booming trade and economic cooperation, increasing interdependence, rapidly integrating regional economy and frequent people-to-people exchanges have a notable “spillover effect” on military relations between China and ASEAN countries. This in turn, has led to a steady trend of strengthening mutual trust and cooperation in military and security affairs.


Since 1990s, China and ASEAN countries have started to explore an institutional framework for mutual trust and security cooperation. For example, China and ten ASEAN countries signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), which is intended to serve as a mechanism to boost mutual trust and manage differences. China formally joined the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC) in 2003, and then established annual defense consultation mechanisms with Thailand, Viet Nam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar. Cooperation on non-traditional security issues between China and ASEAN countries were promoted with joint efforts.


In the second decade of the 21st Century, China and ASEAN started to build a regular communication and cooperation mechanism, starting with the first Defence Ministers’ Informal Meeting in 2011. China and Malaysia launched the “Peace and Friendship” joint military exercise mechanism in 2015. And on the 19th China-ASEAN Summit in September 2016, China and member states of ASEAN reached agreement on the application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) in the South China Sea, indicating improving mutual trust on military and security issues and providing a way for navies to mitigate risks and manage crisis.


In 2018, China and ten ASEAN countries conducted their first joint maritime exercise, heralding a new stage in military and security interaction to conduct pragmatic cooperation, after a long way of seeking for consensus. And the second exercise—"Joint Maritime Drill 2019" was held in Qingdao. In addition, since 2016, China and ten ASEAN countries have been negotiating a Code of Conduct (the COC) in the South China Sea. We have adopted the framework, agreed on a single draft negotiating text and finished, ahead of schedule, the first reading of the single text. Substantive progress has also been made on the mechanism of confidence building regarding military and security issues in the South China Sea.


Nevertheless, the current military and security cooperation between China and ASEAN countries has, to certain extent, fallen short of the booming trade and investment and active people-to-people exchanges. We still face many challenges in building military-to-military confidence. Some ASEAN countries have misconceptions about China, due to lack of strategic dialogues and negative impacts of some narratives such as that “a country will pursue hegemony when it becomes stronger” and that “China is pursuing an expansionist policy in the South China Sea.” They are concerned and on guard that their interests and aspirations would be threatened once China transformed its economic power into military might.


In terms of how China and ASEAN countries can work together to enhanced military-to-military confidence, I would like to make five proposals.


First, China and ASEAN countries need to move faster in negotiating the COC, building the regional security cooperation mechanism, and making institutional arrangements on the conduct of the parties. Based on the concept of “cooperative and common security”, China and ASEAN countries should seize the opportunity of the COC consultation and negotiation, and formulate restrictive institutional design and arrangements to regulate and restrain actions that may escalate tensions and aggravate differences.


Second, China and ASEAN countries need to establish a more effective high-level and strategic dialogue mechanism on military and security issues. Misjudgment caused by information asymmetry is a major barrier to greater mutual confidence on military and security issues. And building on the current China-ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Informal Meeting, a formal inter-governmental strategic dialogue should be established. Under this framework, we can have candid exchange of views on military and security strategies, regional security issues and concerns on the military and security policies of the other. With this dialogue, ASEAN countries can have a correct reading of China’s military strategy of active defense and the essence of the new security concept featuring common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security proposed by China, while China can also have a better understanding of the security strategies of ASEAN and ASEAN countries.


Third, China and ASEAN countries need to expand both traditional and non-traditional security cooperation in the South China Sea. The two sides can deepen the current China-ASEAN joint maritime exercises in terms of exercise design, participating forces and maritime coverage. At the same time, China and ASEAN countries can explore more cooperation projects on the operational level.


Fourth, China and ASEAN countries need to put in place a track II defense and security dialogue. Governments of China and ASEAN countries can support the establishment of a regional defense and security cooperation dialogue on the South China Sea by think tanks and academics in this region, to have sustained and focused discussions and research on maritime security, national military strategy, management of potential maritime conflicts and regional military and security cooperation. This dialogue will put forward constructive proposals for policy makers.


Last but not the least, littoral states of the South China Sea need to step up cooperation and regional economic integration, so as to lay the economic foundation for a community of a shared future in the South China Sea. Under the frameworks of the DOC, and in the future, the COC, littoral states can focus their cooperation on marine industry, tourism, coastal industry and fishery to build closer trade and economic relations and further promote the convergence of interests for military and security cooperation.


Thank you.