27 December 2017
As 2017 draws to an end, its an appropriate time for South China Sea observers to reflect on the happenings in one of the most contested waters in today’s world. In contrast to mounting tension in the past few years in the run-up to the July 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling, this year was marked by the relative thawing of relations in the South China Sea. Most observers generally agree that the agreement between ASEAN and China at the recently concluded 31st ASEAN Summit to begin negotiations on the fine print of a Code of Conduct (COC) was a step in the right direction, despite reservations over the final content and nature of the document.
There has also been a concerted effort in negotiating various maritime cooperation and confidence-building measures in the region. At the 19th ASEAN-China Summit in September 2016, the parties formally “adopted the Joint Statement on the Application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) in the South China Sea,” in the first official statement identifying the South China Sea as a zone of application for the code. Active progress has also been made toward the establishment of hotline communications between ASEAN member states and China to respond to maritime emergencies.
Fiery diplomatic exchanges between China and its ASEAN neighbors have disappeared from the headlines, with leaders from both sides eager to frame an environment of calm and cooperativeness. Since coming into power, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on more than one occasion has expressed his willingness to put aside the PCA ruling in exchange for deeper economic cooperation with China. On December 15, closed door talks between senior defense and security officials were held between Manila and Beijing to boost cooperation in the South China Sea.
Vietnam, the other major claimant country, also show signs of improving relations with China. Both sides issued a joint statement agreeing to peacefully handle their disputes in the South China Sea following Xi’s visit to Vietnam in November. At the same time, Beijing has actively worked to repair its image as a responsible regional power. Taking advantage of its economic prowess, Beijing has sought to woo its Southeast Asian neighbors through economic cooperation and aid via its flagship Belt and Road Initiative.
… Lee YingHui is Senior Analyst with the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
IDSS / Online
Last updated on 27/12/2017