The South China Sea is unquestionably one of the busiest international sea lanes in the world. However, activities within the South China Sea are not only about seaborne trade and navigation; there is also considerable exploitation and exploration of natural resources, such as natural gas, oil and fish stocks. The littoral states with a particular interest in these natural resources are Indonesia, Vietnam, The Philippines, China, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia, while several international companies from countries such as the US, UK, Canada, India, Russia and Australia are also involved in commercial activities.
Several of these states, namely Vietnam, The Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, are members of ASEAN. Indonesia, which is also an ASEAN member, has an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) generated from the Natuna Islands, overlapping China’s so-called ‘nine-dash-line claim’ in the South China Sea. Indonesia officially insists that it is not a claimant.
ASEAN, which has tried to manage the dispute multilaterally through dialogue and consultation with China, has not yet been successful in playing a mediating role due to a lack of consensus among its member states on how to address sovereignty disputes.
ASEAN and China signed the Declaration on the Conducts of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in November 2002 in Phnom Penh. ASEAN and China adopted the Guidelines to implement the DOC on 21 July 2011 in Bali, Indonesia. Further, the PMC Plus One Session with China held on 25 July 2016 in Vientiane endorsed the Joint Statement by Foreign Ministers of ASEAN Member States and China on the Full and Effective Implementation of the DOC which reflected its commitment to ensure the full and effective implementation of the DOC in its entirety.
At their meeting on 6 August 2017 in Manila, the Foreign Ministers of ASEAN Member States and China adopted the framework of the Code of Conduct. At the 20th ASEAN-China Summit in November 2017, ASEAN Member States and China officially announced the launch of the COC negotiations.
ASEAN and China agreed on a Single Draft Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) Negotiating Text at the 15th ASEAN-China Senior Officials’ Meeting on the Implementation of the DOC (SOM-DOC) held in Changsha, China, on 27 June 2018, which will be the basis of COC negotiations.
Despite its shortcomings, ASEAN and China’s endorsement of the framework is a step forward in the two-decade long conflict management process for the South China Sea. Going forward, the framework will form the basis of negotiations between ASEAN and China on the COC.
The South China Sea Dispute (Indo-Pacific Strategic Papers)
Overview of ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations (updated August 2018)
Assessing the ASEAN-China Framework for the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea
Jorge Emilio Núñez
18th September 2018