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Current Situation and Maritime Cooperation in the South China Sea

2021-08-26 11:06:28       source:NISCSS

Current Situation and Maritime Cooperation in the South China Sea

Wu Shicun

Haikou·Aug.26 2021


Good morning! Glad to meet you all for this year’s China-ASEAN Think Tank Dialogue on the South China Sea. To take this opportunity, I'm going to share my views on current situation in the South China Sea issue with a particular focus on strengthening maritime cooperation in the region.


Current maritime cooperation in the SCS

It has been widely admitted by littoral states in the region that cooperation rather than conflicts fulfills the interest of both China and ASEAN. However, in general, current maritime cooperation is restricted to at a bilateral level and in traditional fields, rather than on a multilateral basis and in non-traditional fields. Many initiatives simply have not been implemented.

China has established permanent bilateral consultation mechanisms on maritime dispute resolution and crisis management with other claimants such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, and conducted a series of effective dialogues with them. However, cooperation in non-traditional fields and regional maritime governance, which are integral components of a new order in the South China Sea, has been stagnated for years despite consensus reached on many issues.

For instance, the littoral states recognize the importance of marine environmental protection such as conservation of fisheries resources and maintenance of the safety of sea lanes, but most of them remain ambivalent about the initiative proposed by China as early as in 2008 to set up three specialized technical committees on marine scientific research and environmental protection, navigation safety and search and rescue, and combating transnational crimes at sea under the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).

Reasons are various, but three in particular. First, unilateral maritime claims and maximization of resource development have been the keen interests of some claimant states, they lack the political will of multilateral cooperation at sea, especially the provision of regional public goods. Second, as the window for talks on COC closes, from the perspective of these countries, the importance of unilateral action to consolidate and expand their vested interests far outweighs the need for cooperation. Third, some countries outside the region like the United States continue to intrusively pursue their geopolitical interests through military and diplomatic means, thereby roiling the waters of the South China Sea and interfering with maritime cooperation advocated by China over the years.


How to further promote maritime cooperation in the SCS?

From an operational perspective, regional multilateralism is a viable way to calm current turbulence in the South China Sea and foster regional maritime cooperation among. This can be achieved by implementing a set of permanent, sustainable and effective institutional arrangements to cater to different needs of individual states.Considering the status-quo, China and ASEAN may move forward step by step in three areas.

First, all parties shall contribute their wisdom in building a mechanism for economic cooperation among littoral states, with a particular focus on maritime connectivity and sharing tourism resources. In this regard, coastal states could designate cruise tourism as an “early harvest” project within their multilateral mechanism and thereafter begin to connect port facilities, reorganize supporting supply chains, and effectively allocate resources within the marine economy, and fully extract the huge market potential of such tourism.

Second, littoral states shall draw on the successful practices and experiences of other regions to negotiate and sign in due course a convention on environmental protection in the South China Sea. Since the late 1960s, European countries, guided by an approach of minimizing claims and maximizing cooperation, have signed a number of regional multilateral cooperation agreements.This has led to well-developed regional cooperation mechanisms for marine environmental governance today, covering the North Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and the Baltic Sea. Countries bordering the South China Sea can learn from international practices and, taking regional conditions into account and using the code of conduct framework, sign a convention or treaty for marine environmental governance in the South China Sea. Under this aegis, a multilateral coordination mechanism for cooperation on marine environmental protection, a joint project to survey regional marine resources, and a database on shared regional marine resources can be established.

Third, littoral states need to implement as a priority a regional humanitarian relief mechanism to maintain navigation and maritime security in the region. Given that the South China Sea is one of the most important maritime transport routes in the world, maintaining navigational safety is critical to ensure the safety of global supply chains. At the same time, the South China Sea remains perilous and can be prone to accidents, given its complex and volatile weather patterns, which include frequent and catastrophic events such as typhoons, high winds and fog. China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations should seek to establish as soon as practicable a permanent regional cooperation framework for maritime search and rescue, and humanitarian relief.


Concluding remarks

The situation in the South China Sea is increasingly complex, volatile and fragile. The wise choice for regional countries to make the pie of common interests bigger, hedge against destabilizing factors through cooperation, and promote sustained and enduring stability through the institutionalization of such cooperative arrangements.