We need to be clear-eyed about both progress made and the challenges that remain.
On Tuesday, Chinese media reported that China and ASEAN had made “several breakthroughs” on the South China Sea following another series of meetings on the issue held in Inner Mongolia. As promising as these advances are at first glance, a closer look suggests that they need to be kept in perspective.
According to China Daily, the 13th senior officials’ meeting on the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea ended with Beijing and ASEAN nations agreeing to “several breakthroughs.” These included approving guidelines for a ASEAN-China hotline for use during maritime emergencies, a joint declaration applying the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) to the South China Sea, and finishing the draft framework for a code of conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea by mid-2017.
To be sure, advances in confidence-building measures in the South China Sea ought not to be dismissed as they often are by skeptics. As I have argued elsewhere, claimant states and interested parties alike, including China, ASEAN and the United States, ought to use the months following the July 12 arbitral ruling as an opportunity to deescalate tensions (See: “US South China Sea Policy After the Ruling: Opportunities and Challenges”). This is also an opening for ASEAN and China to make some headway on the South China Sea issue so they can build trust to boost other dimensions of their wide-ranging partnership, especially since 2016 marks the much-awaited 25th anniversary of the establishment of their dialogue partnership.
That said, we also need to be clear-eyed about the progress that is made and the challenges that remain to manage expectations and inform policy. In that vein, several caveats need to be added to these so-called breakthroughs that we have seen thus far.
First, China’s conduct over the past few years suggests that caution is warranted before any real breakthroughs are declared. As I have pointed out before, we have gone through several cycles where temporary bouts of charm by Beijing have been followed by another round of coercion in the South China Sea (See: “Will China Change Its South China Sea Approach in 2015?”). Seven months after unveiling a new strategy for ASEAN-China relations as part of a new charm offensive in Southeast Asia, China moved an oil rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in the summer of 2014. And in spite of hopes that China may change its South China Sea approach in 2015 – which Beijing had initially declared “the year of ASEAN-China maritime cooperation” – the Asian giant ultimately sped up its island-building activities while continuing to intrude into the waters of other Southeast Asian states and stonewall negotiations on a binding code of conduct (COC). Though this time might be different, history suggests that this would be a bad bet to make.
Read more at http://thediplomat.com/2016/08/beware-the-illusion-of-china-asean-south-china-sea-breakthroughs/
The South China Sea Dialogues: https://seasresearch.wordpress.com/category/events-and-analyses/the-south-china-sea-dialogues/
Facts on the Ground and on the Waters: https://seasresearch.wordpress.com/category/south-china-sea-facts-on-the-ground-and-on-the-waters/