Calmer waters: From security to the South China Sea, greater China-Asean cooperation is in everyone's best interest

Zha Daojiong says that closer cooperation between China and Asean is good for the region as a whole

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 October, 2015, 11:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 May, 2016, 2:06pm

Since the first China-Asean official dialogue in July 1991, when then foreign minister Qian Qichen attended the 24th Asean Post-Ministerial Conference as a consultative partner, the relationship between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has grown into a multilayered web of ties. Those ties cover the entire spectrum of security, political, economic and social affairs. Growth of mutually agreeable ties culminated in the announcement of a strategic partnership for peace and prosperity in 2003. On its 10th anniversary, President Xi Jinping championed joint efforts to build a closer China-Asean community of common destiny, charting the course for long-term development of relations.

China supports a more prosperous and stronger Asean, its member states and the grouping's centrality in regional cooperation. The conclusion of Asean community building in 2015 is another milestone for all.

There is no asset in the Asean region that would warrant active conflict between China and the US

The special meeting of China-Asean defence ministers, just concluded in Beijing, was the first of its kind and marked another indicator of China's embrace of the "Asean Way" of security dialogue and cooperation. Given that defence is arguably the last important area for China-Asean interactions to be institutionalised, all 11 parties should take advantage of the momentum and move towards formalising routine defence consultations at the ministerial level.

On security aspects of the relationship, it is important to be mindful of competing assessments and sources of insecurity by various parties. A seemingly neat theory has it that Asean states can expect to be more secure by aligning more closely with the US for military protection and with China for economic well-being. Attractive as that assertion may sound, it is false.

First, it belittles Asean and member states' relative power. One useful example is Asean's success in having non-regional countries accede to its Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, including Australia, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US. In this way, Asean shows it is a power to reckon with. In other words, it rejects the possibility for any state to be its guarantor.

Second, peace in the region is in China's fundamental interest in its pursuit of an amicable external environment. The one lesson both sides have learned from the cold-war-era drawing of geostrategic division lines is that a military/ideological camp comes with anything but a roof for security. Chinese participation in UN-sponsored settlements of internal conflicts in Cambodia and East Timor should provide a basis for debunking projections of China as a threat to the region. An increase in projects of cooperation since the early 1990s has earned China remarkable benefits, including relief from fears of Asean being turned into an anti-China bloc. What good would it do for China to prove the threat hypothesis true?

READ MORE: China 'offers joint drills with Asean in South China Sea

Last but not least, there is no asset in the Asean region that would warrant active conflict between China and the US. Some speculate that access to international transport routes, especially the Strait of Malacca, would be an exception. Should China-US competition escalate to a point of having to intercept commercial shipping bound for and from either country's ports, why would either have to choose the Strait of Malacca area? Further, action there would lead the littoral states of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to act in self-defence. Most importantly, the strait provides a connection to economies around the world. No party can afford to treat it as a target in handling bilateral differences. In short, the prospect of either country turning it into a 'choke point' is virtually nil.

What about the South China Sea, then? Disputes over territorial sovereignty are not an issue between China and Asean as a group. It is true that representatives from China and all member states did sign off on the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002. It is also true that China has agreed to negotiate a code of conduct with the same group. Yet the lowest common denominator is agreement on peaceful means of dispute settlement, which cannot be complicated by non-claimants having a say in the core issue of territorial sovereignty.

READ MORE: There's a need for care in the disputed waters of the South China Sea

This is not to imply that maritime issues do not qualify as legitimate ones between China and Asean. As a matter of fact, there can hardly be disagreement between the two on the importance of ensuring freedom of navigation. Over non-military use of the maritime waters and air space above them, there is little if any contention about the rules and norms: freedom of navigation is assured.

The freedom of navigation principle, when applied to military use of the seas, continues to be contentious. Some user states use the terminology "freedom of the seas" to support their assertion that an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) is an extension inwards of the high seas. In contrast, many coastal states view the zone as an extension outwards of their territorial sea. Arguments about jurisdiction over an EEZ are further complicated with issues of baselines. In the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a compromise was struck: an EEZ is treated as a zone sui generis - neither high sea nor territorial sea.

Between China and some user states (notably the US), the major difference is that China maintains it has a right to regulate the activities of foreign military forces operating within its EEZ and the air space above. Among the East Asian countries, there is no uniform position. Again, between China and the US, incidents over the years have not involved military operations generally, but rather US military survey or surveillance ships in China's EEZ areas. Military surveys are problematic because even when such intelligence activities may be used for military purposes only, such data may have potential economic value to the coastal state and therefore is relevant to its rights (resources) and duties (protection of marine environment).

In the East Asian context, when addressing issues regarding rights in EEZs, especially when they involve military operations, the principle of uniform reciprocity should apply. Broad-stroke reference to conflict resolution in accordance with international law and calls for the seas to be treated as international public goods are useful and even necessary but not sufficient for maintaining good order.

READ MORE: China is making itself the spanner in Asean's works

As such, efforts to enhance regional maritime security by way of agreement on legal issues are bound to be a protracted process. Few, if any, governments can afford to change their expressed positions, no matter what possible interpretations there can be in terms of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as a customary law. Meanwhile, I'd venture to say that in the East Asian context, the de facto lowest common denominator is such that no party can afford to fire the first shot, the race to upgrade weaponry for coastal patrols and naval power projection notwithstanding. In short, avoidance of conflict is likely to continue to be the rule of the game. Let us not exaggerate the level of threat in assessing the maritime security landscape in the Asian region.

As such, maritime security cooperation should proceed by enhancing areas of safety in non-military use of the seas. This should include continued cooperation in tracking piracy and attacks against ships, to be followed by cooperation in prosecuting violators of the law. In fighting transnational crimes on the seas, countries in East Asia can use their battles against the trafficking of illegal drugs as a precedent: a country's exercise of its jurisdiction in prosecuting criminals - regardless of their nationalities - does not get challenged by another.

Navigational safety for commercial vessels traversing the seas is another area for enhanced region-wide cooperation. Treated as a public goods matter, countries should be encouraged and assisted by others to offer their own navigational-safety facilities in the seas to passing vessels, regardless of the flags flown.

Safety of commercial flights, many of which rely on the ocean space for passage, is a public goods matter as well. My suggestion for further cooperation in East Asia includes putting in place live-time tracking mechanisms for all commercial flights in motion over the ocean. One lesson to learn from the initial phase of the search for the unfortunate Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 is that international cooperation in search and rescue operations following an accident should be automatic. Given the increasing volume of human traffic to be expected in the wake of the establishment of the Asean Economic Community and progression of investment initiatives from China and other non-regional economies in Southeast Asia, enhanced cooperation in upgrading regional air travel safety is in order.

READ MORE: Dealing with the dragon: Asean and China trade thrives amid disputes

Fisheries are an important source of protein for most of East Asia. By habit, fishermen chase migrating stocks. Each country's law enforcement in its territorial waters and EEZ areas is beyond doubt a sovereign right and must be respected. That said, it is conducive to fostering a sense of regional security for affected states to explore commonly agreed bottom lines of humane treatment of fishermen caught in such circumstances.

Conservation of marine natural resources and protection of the ecosystems of the oceans can benefit from encouraging cooperation among sub-national actors of the various states. With local actors on board, treaties and pledges of inter-state cooperation can become more effective. Indeed, local and non-governmental actors can inform foreign policy establishments about sensible and actionable ideas of cooperation as well.

Little of all this is new. Suggestions for security cooperation often go through the routine of raising awareness, proposing new mechanisms and in some cases offering bilateral assistance for capacity building. There is no shortage of either goodwill or programmes. The region has come a long way and is resilient in maintaining an aggregate level of security. Asean's central principle of inclusivity played no small role in the past and should continue to serve as a guide in the future. Therein arises the logic of connectivity between China and the Asean community.

Zha Daojiong is a professor at the School of International Studies, Peking University. This is an edited version of a paper prepared for the 6th Xiangshan Forum in Beijing