An achievement for peace through cooperation and pooled prosperity
At the conclusion of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Summit in Singapore which has attracted non-ASEAN partners from across the world, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that after discussions with his ASEAN counterparts in Singapore, a new draft for the Code of Conduct (COC) had been mutually agreed between Beijing and the Association of South East Asian Nations regarding the positions of all parties with South China Sea claims. This agreement will serve as the basis for the rules governing maritime action and connectivity in the South China Sea until a final settlement can be reached on the issue after a period of continued respectful dialogue between Beijing and ASEAN members.
This is a milestone not only because it looks to chart a clear course towards a negotiated settlement regarding the rules of engagement and status of claims in the Sea but it also demonstrates that the quickest and most mutually just path to the harmonisation of cooperation among nations in the South China Sea region is through direct dialogue which is underscored by the reality that China and ASEAN are growing economic partners who can gain much from mutual cooperation and who stand to lose a great deal by succumbing to non-Asian meddling in a regional dispute.
Speaking shortly after the agreement was solidified, Wang Yi told the press, “I believe that the negotiations on COC can be speeded up if we exclude external interference“. As part of the new draft COC, China will station rescue and relief ships in the Sea as part of an effort to provide aid to crews who experience safety hazards in the sea. China further proposed other joint cooperative efforts between its own expert crews and those of ASEAN members throughout the wider region in a clear embrace of the spirit of peace through prosperity.
Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan who hosted the meeting said of the agreement,
“I am pleased to announce yet another milestone in the COC (Code of Conduct) process. AMS (ASEAN member states) and China have arrived at a single draft COC negotiating text, which will be a living document and the basis of future COC negotiations”.
China’s peaceful goals
This agreement makes it clear that when it comes to aggression in the South China Sea, such things can only be provoked by the presence of forces foreign to the region, namely the United States. China’s goals throughout the process are clear. Beijing seeks to confirm its sovereignty over a Sea on its maritime border for the same purposes that in the 1920s, the founder of the Turkish Republic, Ataturk sought to confirm the same status over the Turkish Straits. In 1841, the western powers effectively bullied Turkey into signing the London Straits Convention which while confirming the Ottoman Empire’s sovereignty over the Straits, also prohibited any warships other than Ottoman ships from passing through the straits during war time. This had the desired effect of provoking further hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire, all the while British and French ships had open access to all sides of the Mediterranean.
After the First World War, the victorious western powers attempted to remove Turkish sovereignty over the Turkish Straits by making them an international zone under no one state’s authority. Ataturk refused and as a result the 1936 Montreux Convention allowed for all nations with ports on the Black Sea to pass through the Turkish Straits in times of war or peace while foreign ships would be banned in war time. It is this convention which continues to govern the status of the Turkish Straits to this day.
In The South China Sea, Beijing wants essentially what Turkey wanted and got in the age of Ataturk. China has no desire to close the South China Sea to the wider world, let alone the ASEAN countries who contest sovereignty over parts of the Sea. Instead, China seeks to use its military might and traditional role as the major power of the region in order to ensure that foreign provocations from powers who do not border the Sea are not able to effectively colonise the South China Sea as the western powers attempted to colonise the Turkish Straits in the early 20th century.
The dominance of US ships in the important Strait of Malacca which links the Asia-Pacific region to the Indian Ocean, has only further served to convince China of the importance of staking its sovereign claims to the South China Sea. Thus, the dispute has nothing to do with what the US deceptively calls “freedom of navigation” but has everything to do with China making sure that in a time of war, it is not a distant foreign superpower that controls crucial sea routes which border China.
To this end, China has always been willing to cooperate with ASEAN members with claims to the Sea just as Ataturk was willing to cooperate with fellow powers with ports on the Black Sea. The recent cooperative endeavours between Philippine President Duterte and the Chinese government over mutual exploitation of South China Sea resources further confirms that China’s attitude is one that is constructive rather than threatening when it comes to working cooperatively with nearby states whose soil borders the Sea.
The only time China would ever militarily confront an ASEAN state over Sea claims is in the event of the US becoming a de-facto military protectorate of an ASEAN state. In this sense, any ASEAN member state that resorts to hiding behind US power instead of negotiating a diplomatic solution to joint South China Sea claims with Beijing, is ultimately signing its death warrant in the event of a wider Sino-US war in the region.
Just as Britain and France were all too happy to see Russia and Ottoman Turkey fight throughout the 18th and 19th centuries while they busily colonised Asia and later Africa too, the US today would be all too happy to see countries like Vietnam or The Philippines fight China with US weapons. This way, the US gets to successfully cause diplomatic and money wasting problems for China, gets to test its weapons against China’s and even if the worst happens. it will be states in south east Asia rather than US soil which will be destroyed in such a conflict.
This is why the best “offence” for ASEAN states that still have disputes with China is a defensive posture not against Beijing but against Washington’s gamesmanship in the region. If the US was removed as a factor in south east Asia, it is certain that China would work with its ASEAN partners to pursue the kind of win-win solutions that Beijing and Manila have embarked on since the arrival of President Duterte and likewise, those embarked on when Ataturk and Lenin ended centuries of mutual hostility between two great Eurasian powers. It is therefore the responsibility of ASEAN nations to maintain good trading relations with both China and the US, but when it comes to military provocations, the best ASEAN can say to the US is “thanks but no thanks”. In signing this agreement, ASEAN has taken an important step towards fomenting an Asian authored, owned and executed peace process.
Duterte blazes a trail for all of ASEAN – his opponents owe him a substantial apology
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was the first ASEAN head of state whose country has South China Sea claims to propose and take meaningful steps to implement joint exploration and exploitation missions in the Sea alongside Chinese vessels and experts. Duterte has made it clear that while he will always defend his country’s territory, he looks to China as an important and valued partner rather than as an adversary against whom a war simply could not be won.
This spirit of cooperation has now been collectively embraced by ASEAN in the format of the new Code of Conduct agreement between all ASEAN states and China. This spirit of cooperation in areas where there was once confrontation has also been given a commendation by the Acting Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of The Philippines, Antonio Carpio.
Taken in totality this means that what was once limited to a Sino-Philippine agreement over areas of the Sea in and around Philippine maritime territory, has now been expanded to a wider agreement between eleven nations in total. In this sense, President Duterte can be seen as a trail blazer whose profound shift in attitude towards China vis-a-vis most of his predecessors has now be elevated to a multilateral status in the form of the new COC which according to the Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister will help pave the way for an expedited final agreement. While Duterte’s domestic opponents accused him of treachery during his bilateral discussions with Beijing, today the foreign ministers of Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Brunei have all signed a document framed by the same spirit of Sino-ASEAN cooperation that Duterte first instigated.
The Sino-ASEAN agreement regarding the Code of Conduct on the Sea China Sea is not only a win-win for all concerned parties but it represents a triumph of pan-Asian cooperation over hostility between neighbours and an equal triumph for the sovereignty of Asian nations against the dangerous phenomenon of dependence on foreign meddling in the pursuit of problem solving. The Asian authored, owned and executed agreement looks to permanently ‘Asianise’ the matter in the same way that under Ataturk’s leadership, Turkey was able to transform the issue of the Turkish Straits from a largely western European issue to one that only involved western Eurasian and eastern European nations with Black Sea fleets.
Overall, a similar conclusion as that reached in the Montreux Convention of 1936 can now be attained in the South China Sea so long as all of ASEAN nations with maritime claims continue to cooperate in the spirit of the new draft agreement that itself owes must to the course charted between Manila and Beijing over the last year.