Wednesday, 23 September 2015

The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea: A Cambodian Initiative for Maintaining Peace and Stability

September 24, 2015

China’s massive land reclamations in the South China Sea were a hot topic for discussion at the recent ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Kuala Lumpur in early August. The annual gathering of ASEAN FMs also noted a significant progress in negotiations between ASEAN and China, which agreed to proceed to the next stage of consultations and negotiate the structure and key elements of the proposed Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC). While regional analysts and international media applauded this progress, there was also harsh criticism of Cambodia when the country for the second time served as ASEAN Chair in 2012.

Yet, Cambodia has worked hard for the interests of ASEAN, while, at the same time, safeguarding ASEAN-China relations building on its long history of a close relationship with China. A close look at the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) reveals that Cambodia is a good mediator on the issue. Cambodia initiated this important document and, as Chair of ASEAN in 2002, exerted immense diplomatic effort to have the DOC signed in Phnom Penh on 4 November 2002, at the sidelines of the ASEAN-China Summit.[1]

Since then, no major armed conflict or bloody clashes have occurred in the Paracel and Spratly Islands between the disputing parties: Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, and Vietnam, the ASEAN Claimant States, and China, which claims almost the entire South China Sea. The signing of the DOC put an end to large scale hostilities and has contributed to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea in the following three main ways:
First, no Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) on the South China Sea has been declared by any claimant state since the signing of DOC. In 2013, China unilaterally declared an ADIZ on the East China Sea, which was denounced by its neighbours and prompted the US to conduct freedom of navigation flights in the area to defy it. Some countries in the region feared that China would declare an ADIZ also in the South China Sea. This concern came from massive land reclamation activities by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in reefs and atolls in the Paracel and Spratly Islands, such as the Fiery Cross Reef and Subi Reef, where runways and military facilities were constructed which could be used for military purposes such as airbases and navy bases, to enforce an ADIZ and strengthen territorial claims.
However, an ADIZ on the South China Sea is ruled out by Article 3 of the DOC, which states that “the Parties reaffirm their respect for and commitment to the freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea as provided for by the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)”. The fact that no claimant state has yet declared an ADIZ on the South China Sea is arguably the merit of the DOC.
Second, the current negotiations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) take place under the framework of the DOC, which states in Article 10 that ASEAN and China agree to work toward achieving a COC on a consensual basis. This has resulted in a joint effort to start negotiations for a binding COC. In spite of strategic divisions among ASEAN countries, ASEAN still has a common position in upholding the DOC while the negotiation of a COC continues. Some countries have expressed disappointment with the slow progress in the COC negotiation due primarily to China’s foot-dragging approach and the complexity of the territorial and legal issues involved. The Philippines and Vietnam have proposed a “Do and Don’t list” for activities in the South China Sea and requested China to clarify the exact coordinates of the Nine-Dash Line which demarcates its claim. China has disagreed and asserted its claim based on historical rights. ASEAN needs to step up its efforts to maintain the significance of the DOC through regular dialogue and consultation, such as the ASEAN-China Joint Working Group on the Implementation of the DOC and ASEAN-China Senior Official Consultation on the DOC, as well as convene more workshops on implementing the DOC, especially its Article 5, which stipulates self-restraint.
Third, the DOC reflects the political will of all concerned parties to address their differences peacefully. The DOC serves as a diplomatic platform to exchange views so as to increase trust and mutual understanding, which alleviates tension in the region and creates a favourable environment for the peaceful settlement of disputes. At the very least, the DOC could be seen as a tool to uphold self-restraint.  Since the 2002 signing of the DOC, no major armed conflict has broken out in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, despite some skirmishes such as boat ramming. In contrast, there were bloody clashes between China and Vietnam in the Paracel Islands in 1974, and frequent hostilities in the Spratly Islands in the 1980s.
The DOC represents a key achievement of Cambodia during its 2002 Chairmanship of ASEAN. It was signed because ASEAN and China recognised the importance of maintaining regional peace, stability, and prosperity. It is the only political document signed by ASEAN Foreign Ministers and China to express their political commitment to address the South China Sea dispute, with four main objectives: confidence and trust building measures, the settlement of disputes by peaceful means and according to international law, practical cooperative activities, and the eventual conclusion of a COC. However, it is not meant to be an instrument for settling territorial sovereignty. It is a bridge between a position of doing nothing and an effort to have a legally binding document.
Heng Sarith is a Research Fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies (CISS). This article was originally published here with CISS. 


1. "Cambodia's Foreign Policy Grand Strategy" (11 September 2014)

Please click here to view this article on the Diplomat's Website 

2. "Cambodia: Challenges of Democratic Consolidation" (3 March 2014)

Please click here to view this article on The Diplomat's Website. 

3. "ASEAN: Between China and America". East Asia Forum (12 July 2013). 

Please click here to read the article on East Asia Forum's website.

4.  "A Job Well Done: Cambodia as ASEAN Chair in 2012". East Asia Forum (19 January 2013). 

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