New Caspian Sea Agreement Holds Lessons For South China Sea Issues

A new era for the Caspian states 

The collapse of the Soviet Union shifted the balance of power in the Caspian Sea as the body of water that had previously been surrounded by two nations was now surrounded by five. Today, after decades of often tense negotiations, The Russian Federation, The Islamic Republic of Iran, Republic of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Republic of Azerbaijan have agreed to a new pact which enshrines formal rules agreed to by all parties on how to divide the Caspian.

According to the new protocols, all five nations will have equal navigation rights while alien powers will be forbidden from constructing basis in the Caspian. Finally, underwater rights which include gas, oil and fishing rights will be divided with each state having a geographically appropriate and practically equitable section of the seabed and underwater space.

While the leaders of the five Caspian nations are celebrating the recent achievement as a win-win victory to a decades long dispute, the process and result of the discussion does have some important lessons for the ASEAN states challenging Chinese claims in the South China Sea.

First of all, it is important to address the differences. While the South China Sea is among the world’s most important shipping seas, the Caspian Sea is in reality, a salt-water lake. Because of this, the parties to the Caspian agreement have decided to neither use the basis of the United Nations Law of the Sea nor traditional legal precedent regarding lakes to settle the dispute. In spite of this, the style of the negotiation does hold an important precedent for South China Sea claimants.

One of the crucial elements of the Caspian negotiating process is that it was organic. This is to say that not a single state that does not border the Caspian was part of the negotiation process. Secondly, each party to the agreement has acted in a manner that rejects the use of Caspian ports by any foreign power. The South China Sea dispute is likewise best advanced through a similar format whereby states foreign to the shores of the South China Sea should not be involved in present nor future discussions while likewise, all parties with claims to the South China Sea should work from a principle which disallows foreign powers from setting up permanent basis along the South China Sea without the express permission of all other claimants.

The recent South China Sea breakthrough in Singapore 

Hopes that the parties to South China Sea discussions will follow the pattern of success embarked on by the Caspian parties were made more clear in the aftermath of the recent ASEAN summit of foreign ministers in Singapore. At the conclusion of the recent ASEAN summit which 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”.

The South China Sea requires a hybrid Caspian/Turkish Straits model 

Like the Turkish Straits but unlike the Caspian, the South China Sea is a vital shipping lane whose legal status has already been politicised by the Sino-US rivalry just as the Turkish Straits became politicised between the western European imperial powers and Russia in the 19th century. Today, China’s goals throughout the South China Sea negotiation 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.


In the South China Sea there is a co-equal question of territorial rights and usage rights. This is the same issue that was ultimately solved in the Turkish Straits in 1936 via an agreement which confirmed Turkish sovereignty along with the usage rights of all Black Sea powers whether in wartime or peacetime. Like the Caspian issue though, the South China Sea discussions must be held on the basis of mutual political equality between regional parties while crucially no foreign hand must have a role in shaping discussions. If each of these qualifiers can be satisfied in respect of the South China Sea, there is every chance that a positive conclusion to the issue can be reached just as is the case currently in the Caspian and as was the case in the Turkish Straits in 1936.

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