November 22 marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). Although China and other states bordering on the South China Sea hope to make the waters a place of peace and cooperation, extraterritorial interference tends to produce rogue waves.
To realize enduring peace, more effective regional rules are in order. All parties involved have reaffirmed that the adoption of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC), a proposed code to manage tensions in the disputed waterway, would further promote peace and stability in the region and agreed to work, on the basis of consensus, toward the eventual attainment of this objective. The DOC, meanwhile, should be fully implemented.
The DOC was the first political document on the South China Sea reached between China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states. Since its signing in November 2002, this document has played a big role in safeguarding regional peace and stability as well as increasing political mutual trust among relevant states and territories.
However, extraterritorial interference has led to several big disputes over the waters. Still, the DOC explicitly states territorial and jurisdictional disputes should be resolved among directly involved countries through friendly negotiation.
Under the DOC framework, China and the ASEAN countries have established regular mechanisms like senior official meetings and joint working groups designed to implement the declaration. Thanks to these efforts, the risks of disputes over the South China Sea escalating to regional conflicts have thus far been carefully defused.
The DOC also proposes and encourages cooperation between China and the ASEAN countries in areas like marine environmental protection and scientific research. These fields serve as guides for relevant parties to tap into more areas of cooperation before the maritime disputes over the South China Sea are fully and forever solved.
Since the signing of the DOC, the China-ASEAN relationship has been elevated to a strategic partnership and further to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2021. Stronger political mutual trust as well as economic and trade ties between China and the ASEAN countries are laying a solid foundation for the settlement of differences over the South China Sea.
Nevertheless, the DOC is yet to be fully implemented. As a political declaration, the DOC lacks mandatory constraint. Certain countries outside the region have undermined regional peace and stability by interfering through military, diplomatic and legal means. And all countries bordering on the South China Sea must deal with outsiders in legal and proper manner. This is one reason why the COC is so eagerly anticipated on the 20th anniversary of the DOC.
China and the ASEAN countries kicked off COC negotiations in 2013. A first framework was passed during the 14th Senior Official Meeting on the Implementation of the DOC in May 2017. So far, China and ASEAN have hosted 19 senior official meetings and 37 joint working group meetings.
Both sides are confident about the COC's approval, as it is in the interest of China and all ASEAN member states.
Yet the biggest stumbling block for the code's agreement issues from countries outside the region, particularly the United States. With the Joe Biden administration's new Indo-Pacific Strategy launched earlier this year, the U.S. is stepping up its military presence in the South China Sea in a bid to disrupt COC negotiations by taking advantage of its unilateral interpretation of relevant international laws, posing a threat to regional peace and stability.
In this sense, how to fend off such external disruptions and transform the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation are priorities China and the ASEAN countries need to accomplish together.
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
Comments to email@example.com