South China Sea guidelines just the first step

Updated: 2011-08-23 11:09

By Ren Yuanzhe (

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The 18th ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Ministerial Meeting was held on July 23, 2011, in Bali, the Republic of Indonesia. Before this annual meeting, a significant development in the South China Sea dispute drew attention from the international community. On July 21, China and 10 ASEAN countries reached an agreement on the guidelines for implementation of the Declaration of Conduct (DOC) in the South China Sea, expressing hope that the guidelines will be put steadily into practice.

Adopting the guidelines marked the defusing of recent tensions in the South China Sea. Almost all parties concerning the issue spoke highly of the movement. Even the most powerful supporter of the countries lined up against China, the United States, also welcomed the agreement. However, we could not overestimate the guideline. As Kurt Campbell, the US assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said, "We're going to need to see follow-up interactions between China and ASEAN." The next step that all parties take will be the touchstone to evaluate the guidelines.

There are at least three divergences for China and other claimant countries, which will influence the effectiveness of the guidelines.

First, the way to handle the dispute, bilateral or multilateral?

From China's perspective, the South China Sea issue should be discussed on a bilateral platform rather than in a more internationalized forum. It seems as if this time China has yielded to agreeing to multilateral discussions on the issue, for China recognizes ASEAN to work with rather than with claimants individually. Nonetheless, China hasn't stepped back from its position on dealing with territorial disputes on the South China Sea bilaterally. Evidently, the guidelines have no expression on the sovereignty issue; instead they cover functional affairs about cooperation in the area. Therefore in the future, the way of handling the issue will continue to be compromised until all parties reach a deal.

Second, the interests of claimant countries in the area, self-interest or win-win?

The South China Sea is a region rich in energy resources, which came to be known as the "second Persian Gulf." According to figures released by the US Energy Information Administration, oil reserves are estimated as high as 213 billion barrels and natural gas reserves is 900 trillion cubic ft. Tensions seem inevitable as the interests are presented in front of the claimant countries.

As the statistic shows, marine economy accounts for more than 45% of Vietnam's GDP. The Vietnam government clearly knows the importance of interests connected to the ocean, and the "Oriental policy" which depends on marine economy is the best pill to heal the country. The same thing happens in other surrounding countries such as the Philippines and Malaysia. They all intend to have a finger in the pie.

At the same time, China has clearly pointed out the development of marine economy in the government's 12th Five-Year Plan, which called for "enhancing the ability of marine development and utilizing and actively developing offshore oil and gas." Therefore, exploration campaigns happen in a logical way, and tensions in the South China Sea were in the usual spotlight. How to overcome the dilemma and achieve a win-win result and promote common interests becomes very crucial.

Third, the role of countries outside the region, constructive engagement or negative intrusion?

Penetration of the interests of big powers has been making this issue more and more complicated. In Barack Obama's East Asian policy, containing China is at the top of the agenda. And the South China Sea conflicts provide a great issue to intervene in, so Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the so-called "freedom of navigation," "unimpeded legal commerce" and "the maintenance of peace and stability" at last year's forum in Hanoi.

It is obvious the US stands behind the other claimant countries, especially the Philippines and Vietnam, encouraging them to antagonize China. Consequently, Philippine President Benigno Aquino spoke highly of the US role in the region at the ASEAN meeting in Bali. The US sees them as a good countervailing power to contain China. So the US' negative intrusion in the South China Sea will make it unpredictable after the guidelines.

Significantly, it took nine years to gather enough consensuses to agree to the non-binding guidelines, and we should say it's an important step for political mutual trust among the countries. Yet, there are already signs that the guidelines may not be enough to ease disputes. Recently, the Philippines showed its strong attitude that it will go ahead in its exploration in its claimed portion of the South China Sea. Actually, we cannot expect too much from the guidelines. Only after we overcome these convergences can we see a more practical and efficient mechanism for promoting peace and stability in the region.

The author is a senior lecturer with the Department of Diplomacy at China Foreign Affairs University.