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Some Thoughts on Promoting Cooperation in the South China Sea

2023-04-21 21:48:53       source:NISCSS

Some Thoughts on Promoting Cooperation in the South China Sea

—Remarks at the BFA South China Sea Sub-Forum


Wu Shicun


Chairman, Huayang Institute for Research on Marine Cooperation and Ocean Governance

Chairman of the Board, China-Southeast Asia Research Center on the South China Sea


Boao, March 30, 2023


The landscape in the South China Sea, mainly driven by two factors, is unfolding in two respects.


On the one hand, there are some promising and encouraging positive signs on the sea. China is engaged in communication and consultation with ASEAN countries, particularly with other claimants, injecting momentum to their efforts to manage maritime differences and conflicts and promote practical cooperation under the framework of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). Building on their consultation mechanism on the South China Sea established in 2017, China and the Philippines set up a direct liaison mechanism between the two foreign ministries on maritime issues earlier this year, a step forward to manage emergencies on the sea between the two countries.


On the other hand, forward deployments and military operations of the U.S. and its allies and partners in the South China Sea have once again triggered and intensified geopolitical competition there, with a growing smell of gunpowder.


In 2022, the U.S. conducted about 2,000 ship-days of activities by surface ships, including special-purpose ships, about 3,000 sorties of close-in reconnaissance from air (including those by carrier-based aircraft), and more than ten missions by nuclear submarines in the South China Sea.


On March 23rd and 24th, a U.S. guided missile destroyer illegally intruded into the territorial waters of China’s Xisha Islands twice in two days, setting a new record. The U.S. has more forward military bases in the South China Sea now than in the Cold War. Recently, it has increased its military bases in the Philippines from five to nine. The distribution of these bases indicates a clear strategic design on the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits. According to its strategy, the U.S. is building blocks on security cooperation with China as its imaginary enemy, and a series of mini-lateral military cooperation mechanisms tailor-made for China, such as the Quad, AUKUS, the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA), “U.S.-Philippines Plus” and “U.S.-Japan Plus”.


Maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea region is a shared vision of China and ASEAN countries, and an aspiration of the overwhelming majority of countries in the international community. It is the obligations and responsibilities of China and the U.S. to play a constructive role. As far as the U.S. is concerned, it needs to play an active role on some issues while exercising restraints on others.


First, the U.S should be committed to diplomacy to deal with the differences between China and the United States in the South China Sea. Growing forward military presence in the South China Sea will not help peace and stability of the South China Sea. It will not only intensify confrontation between China and the U.S. over their interests, but also pose a dilemma of taking sides for some countries around the South China Sea. Second, the U.S. should stop building military bases and deploying forces against China. Third, the United States should reduce and cease military and quasi-military operations against China, including freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), close-in reconnaissance, joint patrols and missions by its Coast Guard. Fourth, the U.S. should stop hyping up the South China Sea arbitral award and exercise restraint in diplomatic and military actions based on the ruling. Fifth, the U.S. should not send wrong and misleading signals to the Philippines, so that the latter will not be so reckless as to strengthen its control and build military facilities on Renai Reef. Sixth, the U.S. should not interfere and intervene in the COC consultations directly or through its agents, and support the efforts of China and ASEAN countries to build rules and order in the South China Sea.


As far as China and ASEAN countries are concerned, they should move forward on two tracks. One is to speed up practical cooperation at sea under the DOC framework; the other is to quicken their pace on the COC consultations and spare no efforts until the agreement is reached.


First, the United Nations High Seas Treaty (UN High Seas Treaty), which was recently signed, can be used as a model when we launch the study and consultation on a convention on marine environment protection in the South China Sea, in order to put marine environment governance in the South China Sea on the agenda. We can start with addressing plastic waste, with a view to expanding cooperation into coral reef restoration, bio-diversity protection, fishery resources conservation and marine pollution prevention and treatment. By learning from successful experience of developed countries and other sea areas, we can choose waters that are acceptable to all parties in a pilot initiative and, once successful, gradually expand the scope of application, in order to build step by step a marine eco-environmental governance and cooperation mechanism in the South China Sea.


Second, maritime cooperation under the DOC framework needs to start in small, low-sensitivity and easy areas in bilateral fields before moving into multilateral ones. We can start with a joint survey on fishery resources in disputed waters, gradually put in place a regional fishery resources conservation system, and bring fishing practices and gear up to standards in a step-by-step manner.


Third, we need to advocate civilian facilities on islands and reefs in the Nansha Islands be used as public goods, an initiative that can be included in the COC consultations. In waterway safety, disaster mitigation and prevention, and humanitarian search and rescue in the South China Sea, all parties should first use the civil functions of the islands and reefs and facilities in the Nansha islands to provide universal public goods to the international community.


Fourth, all parties should work together for the “demilitarization” of the South China Sea. In particular, the littoral states in the South China Sea should think twice about providing non-resident countries with military bases that may endanger peace and stability in the South China Sea, refrain from conducting military exercises in the traditional security field against other countries in sensitive disputed waters of the South China Sea, and remain cautious about joint patrols in disputed waters.


Fifth, we propose to establish a South China Sea cooperation council. Its central tasks are to promote maritime cooperation under the DOC framework, implement the COC after its signing and entry into force, and negotiate the convention on marine environmental protection in the South China Sea, in order to provide organizational and institutional support for conducting cooperation and building rules and order in the South China Sea.