Cooperation in the South China Sea region: a way to regional peace, stability and prosperity, by Li Jianwei

Thursday, 24 February 2011 04:00 NNH

This paper continues to support the idea of a sub-regional organization which acts as the coordinating institution for all-round cooperation in the South China Sea region. Only in this way can all actions be coordinated and fully communicated to avoid potential conflicts and promote efficiency of cooperation.




Since the first multi-lateral regional document on the South China Sea—Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea—was signed in 2002, the relevant parities regarding the South China Sea issues have become more than ever integrated economically. Meanwhile, top leaders of these countries emphasized at various bi-lateral and multi-lateral occasions that the peace in the South China Sea is vital to the stability and prosperity of the region. Realizing the importance and urgency of cooperation in the South China Sea, joint efforts of cooperation have been explored in the fields of maritime security, marine environmental protection, marine scientific research, disaster prevention and marine resources exploitation and utilization. However, the scale of cooperation in the sea lags far behind the economic integration among these countries. Therefore, this paper continues to support the idea of a sub-regional organization which acts as the coordinating institution for all-round cooperation in the South China Sea region. Only in this way can all actions be coordinated and fully communicated to avoid potential conflicts and promote efficiency of cooperation.



Eight years has passed since the first multi-lateral regional document on the South China Sea issues—the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (The 2002 DOC)—was signed near the end of 2002. This document not only lays down the governing principles[2] concerning the South China Sea (SCS) issues but also spells out the scope of cooperation among the 11 signatories[3], including maritime security, marine environmental protection (MEP) and marine scientific research (MSR). Under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), all parties related to the SCS issues are also required to cooperate in the above areas as well as the management, conservation, exploration and exploitation of the marine living resources due to the characteristics of the marine resources and the semi-enclosed nature of the South China Sea. Realizing the importance and urgency of cooperation on maritime issues, the relevant parties have made joint efforts in exploring ways of cooperation in the SCS region. At the same time, economic integration among them has grown much faster during this period, which makes the efforts of cooperation over maritime matters lag far behind. To make the limited financial resources function more cost-effectively, the scattered efforts on maritime cooperation in the SCS region need more coordination while unilateral actions need to be avoided. It is time to evaluate the cooperating efforts made by the relevant parties for the purpose of promoting peace, security and prosperity in the SCS region.

It is for this purpose that the paper puts its layout. Following the Introduction, Part II analyses the basis for the coordinated cooperation in the SCS region. Part III explores various cooperation efforts made by relevant parties. Part IV concludes by raising the missing points in the current cooperation activities and further supporting the initiation of setting up a sub-regional SCS cooperation organization to coordinate various efforts for the common aim of turning the South China Sea into “a sea of friendship and a sea of cooperation”.


For the purpose of this paper, the SCS region refers to the following economies around the SCS. It includes the 9 southern provinces of mainland China[4], Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Brunei. It covers a total area of 9.4 million km2, of which land comprises 4.9 million km2 and sea 4.5 million km2. Nearly 870 million people live in this area. In 2007 its annual GDP has reached USD 2,300 billion with a total foreign trade volume of USD 3200 billion.[5] Table 1 gives the general information of the relevant economies included in the SCS region. The rationale behind this choice is that the development of all these economies is closely linked to the South China Sea. Due to the following basis closer cooperation is necessary for regional prosperity and stability.




1. Obligations under international law and regional agreement

The SCS issues involve six parties, namely, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, China and Chinese Taipei. Since all the relevant State Parties have either ratified or acceded to UNCLOS, they are obliged to enter into temporary arrangements through mutual consultation and negotiation before the SCS issues are finally resolved.[6]

Dispute over resources is one key factor in the SCS issues regarding sovereignty and jurisdiction among the disputants around the South China Sea. Before the disputes over sovereignty and jurisdiction are properly resolved, the exploitation and utilization of immobile non-living resources depend on dialogues and cooperation among the littoral states concerned.

As living resources move across borders, their exploitation and utilization are largely not affected by the above-mentioned disputes. To make better use of such resources, an urgent and practical challenge is to facilitate regional cooperation. In fact, in order to achieve the preservation and sustainable exploitation of marine resources, relevant documents of international laws have provided for regulated marine resource exploitation, MEP and MSR as well as obligations for regional and sub-regional cooperation. In other words, cooperation among States in the SCS region regarding the preservation, exploitation and utilization of living resources as well as MEP and MSR has a sound legal basis. 

The provisions contained in Part V of UNCLOS as well as the 1995 Agreement for the Implementation of the Provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 10 December 1982 Relating to the Conservation and Management of Straddling Fish Stocks and Highly Migratory Fish Stocks (UNFSA) provide regulations on the exploitation of fish stocks by coastal States in their respective exclusive economic zones. Consequently, coastal States bear the duties for global, regional and sub-regional cooperation in terms of conservation and sustainable use of fish stocks, including those straddling and highly migratory species, as well as honoring the rights of developing or geographically disadvantaged States.

Part IX of UNCLOS serves as a direct legal basis for cooperation among the States bordering enclosed and semi-enclosed seas in the conservation and development of living resources, MSR and MEP. Article 123 provides that States bordering an enclosed or semi-enclosed sea should cooperate with each other in the exercise of their rights and in the performance of their duties as prescribed in UNCLOS. To this end they shall endeavour, directly or through an appropriate regional organization: a) to coordinate the management, conservation, exploration and exploitation of the living resources of the sea; b) to coordinate the implementation of their rights and duties with respect to the protection and preservation of the marine environment; c) to coordinate their scientific research policies and undertake where appropriate joint programmes of scientific research in the area; d) to invite, as appropriate, other interested States or international organizations to cooperate with them in furtherance of the provisions of this article.

According to Article 197 (Part XII) of UNCLOS, States shall cooperate on a regional or sub-regional basis, directly or through competent international organizations, in formulating and elaborating international rules, standards and recommended practices and procedures consistent with UNCLOS, for the protection and preservation of the marine environment, taking into account characteristic regional features.

It is also stated in Article 242 (Part XIII) of UNCLOS that States and competent international organizations shall, in accordance with the principle of respect for sovereignty and jurisdiction and on the basis of mutual benefit, promote international cooperation in marine scientific research for peaceful purposes. The UNCLOS has pronounced the necessity to deal with maritime issues in the South China Sea in a cooperative manner.

In addition to the above binding legal provisions, there are international documents known as "soft law" related to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity. Though not binding, these soft laws, to some extent, are very important, as they influence the development of global and regional marine laws and policies. Moreover, regional organizations may require the implementation of certain parts of such documents by their member States. For instance, Chapter 17 of Agenda 21, adopted at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, contains provisions for the protection of sea and its living resources; the Plan of Implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, adopted in Johannesburg in 2002, encourages countries to apply the ecosystem approach and promote integrated and multi-sectoral coastal and ocean management by 2010, including assistance to coastal States in developing integrated coastal and marine management policy and mechanism; the United Nations Millennium Declaration and the 2005 World Summit agree to improve cooperation and coordination at all levels, with a view to comprehensively responding to marine challenges and promoting integrated management and sustainable development of oceans; the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and the four international Plans of Action set out principles and international standards for responsible fisheries in order to ensure effective conservation, management and development of marine living resources while preserving the ecosystem and biodiversity. In addition, at the regional level, there are international documents with soft-law nature that promote integrated ocean management and regional cooperation for this purpose.

As the State parties to UNCLOS, the relevant State countries over the SCS issues are obliged to engage in regional cooperation to conserve and exploit living resources in their exclusive economic zones, and safeguard the living standards of people, particularly those coastal residents with higher dependence on marine resources.

In addition to the provisions in the international law, the most important regional document concerning the SCS issues is the 2002 DOC, signed between China and the 10 ASEAN State members on 4 November 2002. All signatories emphasized the need to promote a peaceful, friendly and harmonious environment in the South China Sea for the enhancement of peace, stability, economic growth and prosperity in the region. For this aim, all members are committed to the confidence-building schemes and cooperative activities through friendly consultations and negotiations. All unilateral actions which may escalate disputes and affect peace and stability are discouraged. Since the signing of the 2002 DOC, the relevant governments have showed strong willingness to take self-restraints and promote cooperation in various concerned fields to have the issues under control.

2. Political willingness

ASEAN and China have concluded a number of key documents for building up a long-term partnership. In addition to the early 1997 Joint Statement on ASEAN-China Cooperation Towards the 21st Century and the 2002 DOC, they signed the Joint Declaration of ASEAN and China on Cooperation in the Field of Non-traditional Security Issues in 2002, the Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity in 2003, and Joint Statement of ASEAN-China Commemorative Summit in 2006. In these documents the related governments have expressed their intention to create a friendly cooperative environment in the region. The 2003 Joint Declaration promoted their “friendly neighbouring relations” into a “strategic partnership”.

Various regional forums such as ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN+China, ASEAN+3 (China, Japan and South Korea), East Asian Summit (EAS) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) have created frequent multi-lateral platforms for top leaders of relevant countries to meet frequently to discuss issues of mutual concern including the SCS issue. The Chairman’s statements at each ASEAN-China summit emphasized the importance of close ASEAN-China relations to peace, stability and prosperity in the region and expressed the intention to strengthen their cooperation, which is conducive to conflicts avoidance and confidence building.

At bilateral level, top leaders from relevant governments exchange visits more frequently. These visits have strengthened bilateral understanding and signaled to the world their intention to promote all-round cooperation and their determination to solve all problems by peaceful means. For example, during Vietnamese top leaders’ visits to China in 2008, two countries emphasized to develop the strategic relations under the guidance of “good neighbours, good friends, good partners and good comrades”[7] and to handle problems including the SCS issues properly and strengthen cooperation in oil and gas exploration, MEP, MSR, search and rescue (SAR) and prevention of piracy attacks in the SCS.[8] During Malaysian Prime Minister Najib’s visit to China early this year, both countries emphasized the importance of the strategic relations between the two countries and agreed to strengthen dialogue and cooperation to deal with the related issues properly to maintain peace and stability in the SCS region.[9] This is in line with the China-Malaysia joint communiqué issued in 2005.[10] The Philippine President Arroyo met Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Yiechi’s during the latter’s recent visit to the Philippines. Both emphasized the importance of the strategic relations between the two countries to the regional peace and development.[11] Yang and his Filipino counterpart Romulo praised the good relations between the two countries and agreed to maintain peace and stability in the SCS by joint efforts.[12] The promotion of understanding and trust through these exchanges of visits is key to peace and security in the region.

3. Economic integration

Since 2003, economic integration among the ASEAN countries has developed rapidly as shown in the Tables 2 and 3. In 2003, the total trade volume is USD 820 billion, among which the intra-ASEAN trade volume is over USD 200 billion, one quarter of the total. In 2008 the two figures exceed USD1700 billion and USD 450 billion respectively, in which the intra-ASEAN trade occupies a similar ratio of 27% of the total. In 2003, the total foreign direct investment (FDI) inflow into the ASEAN countries is USD 24 billion and grows strongly in 2004 at a rate of nearly 50%. In 2005 the FDI inflow slows down at a rate of over 12%. Though in 2006 and 2007, the FDI inflow shows a strong growing trend (39% and 26% respectively), it dropped rapidly to -13% due to the world financial crisis. Though the total FDI inflow into ASEAN fluctuated during the period from 2003 to 2008, the inflow within ASEAN countries remains relatively constant at a rate of ±13%. Though the total FDI inflow drops sharply in 2008, the inflow within the ASEAN countries grows relatively higher than the previous years. The world financial crisis might have reduced ASEAN investors’ confidence in investing outside the region, so they turned back to their own region to extend business.






Though China might have emerged as a competitor for some Southeast Asian countries due to the similarities of export products and markets, ASEAN began to consider the potential economic benefits of closer trade relations with China throughout the 1990s when a consensus was reached that they must “cultivate closer relations with Northeast Asian economies” to meet new economic challenges in a global economy.[13] Closer economic relation is not a zero-sum game anymore but a win-win cooperation. As a scholar observes:

China’s stunning economic growth may also generate an investment creation effect. As China’s industrialization proceeds apace, it develops a huge appetite for minerals and raw materials—spurring inflows of FDI into countries with the resource endowment to feed this appetite, which, of course, includes several in ASEAN. …the establishment of an increasingly sophisticated regional division of labor based on trans-border production networks that facilitate trade in components and their ultimate assembly may stimulate complementary investments in manufacturing elsewhere in the region.[14]

On the other hand, the stable and strong ASEAN economies are conducive to China’s development. Chinese President Hu Jintao highlighted this interdependence during his visit to Malaysia in 2002, “China’s development would be impossible without Asia, and Asia’s prosperity without China.” To respond to the newly developed interdependence, China and ASEAN promoted the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) fully taking into consideration of those concerns explicitly raised during the process. ASEAN and China are major trading partners with the total trade of up to US$200 billion in 2008. This growth put China as ASEAN’s third largest trading partner after Japan and European Union (EU). Comparing with the trade value of USD 60 billion in 2003, the trade value in 2008 is over 3 times that of 2003. China’s export to ASEAN countries is growing very fast from 2003 to 2008, with the 2008 export value of over USD 100 billion, three times that of 2003 (USD 30 billion). This put China as a country whose export value to ASEAN is the second biggest after Japan (Table 4). Given the strong rate of expansion, economic and trade ties are expected to further intensify in the near future.




Table 5 shows that from 2003 to 2008, China’s investment in ASEAN increases rapidly. In 2003, China’s investment in ASEAN countries is only USD 187 million, while in 2008 it has reached nearly USD 1.5 billion, 8 times that of 2003. This put China as ASEAN’s 4th biggest investor after EU, Japan and the U.S.



Since 2003, China is one of ASEAN’s most important country where tourists come from and in 2007, China became ASEAN’s biggest(Table 6) country of origin for tourist arrivals.




Bilateral cooperation between China and individual countries around the South China Sea has also been strengthened during the process of FTA. In 2008, the China-Malaysia trade is the most strongest in the SCS region with a volume of over USD 53 billion, with Malaysia having a trade surplus of over USD 10 billion. China’ second trade partner is Singapore, with the total trade volume of USD 52 billion, among which USD 32 billion as China’s export and USD 20 billion as China’s import from Singapore (Table 7).



4. Non-traditional security concerns

Non-traditional security threats have continuously haunted the SCS region. They include, inter alia, epidemic diseases, climate change and natural disasters resulted from climate change, piracy and terrorist attacks. It is still clear in our minds the fear that SARS brought to the region in 2003, followed by bird-flu and H1N1 flu. The fear comes from not only the human lives the diseases claimed but also the fast speed they spread across the borders. Since this region consists of many low lying insular features facing the threat of sea level rise, the climate change issue has been given great attention to. For example, it was reported that by 2100, 90,260 km2 of Indonesian costal land and small islands may disappear as a result of a1.1-meter sea level rise.[15] Currently the average annual sea-level rise of 3mm might be minor, but the horizontal impact is estimated at about 50-200 times. The devastation of 2004 Tsunami is one typical example. According to the report from the International Maritime Bureau, the cases of piracy dropped from the years 2000 to 2005. In the Malacca and Singapore Straits, though the proportion of ships attacked is estimated to range from 0.04% to 0.11% of the total number of ships transiting annually, what makes piracy dangerous is that these gangs appear to be better equipped and organised than most naval authorities and have demonstrated an increased propensity to use violence.[16]The existence of mega-ports along the sea lanes in the South China Sea and of super-tankers passing through them makes any terrorist attack a possible disaster to the world economy.

All these non-traditional threats carry transboundary nature and pose risks to the countries of the SCS region. To handle all these issues effectively, individual countries’ efforts are far from enough. Joint efforts are needed.

5. Regional integration trend

Transnational issues need to be resolved in a coordinated manner among countries concerned, which promotes integration. Integration is recognized as a win-win mechanism to fight against global or regional problems more efficiently. Economic integration is the basic trend for current global economic development, which includes, inter alia, globalization and regionalization. Globalization and regionalization push ahead the global economy in their own particular ways. Globalization covers a wide range of aspects. Different political systems and economic development levels may lead different countries to have their own priorities on integration, which makes it hard for them to form consistent views and also makes it difficult for production components to move freely across borders. To deal with such an issue, regionalization started being implemented in more and more areas as a way towards economic integration. Speedy regionalization is reflected by the rapid international cooperation in general and the appearance of regional organizations in particular. The success of ASEAN, ASEAN+1, ASEAN+3 and ASEAN Summits indicates the regional integration in the SCS region, which implies that strengthening economic cooperation therein is an irreversible trend. With the unresolved SCS disputes, the relevant parties may wish to strengthen cooperation for the sake of promoting regional peace and may also wish to set up functional regional organizations to promote economic development within the region for the aim of common prosperity. 

In addition, UNCLOS and other relevant international legal documents emphasize the importance of international, regional and subregional cooperation on the exploration and exploitation of marine resources, particularly those in enclosed or semi-enclosed seas. For example, Articles 123, 197 and 242 of UNCLOS as well as Part III of UNFSA lays down obligations and requirements for regional and international cooperation.


1. The integration of ASEAN

Since ASEAN was initiated in 1967, the economic, political and cultural integration was gradually expended among its member countries. The ASEAN Vision 2020, adopted in 1997, set the goal of building ASEAN into “a concert of Southeast Asian nations, outward looking, living in peace, stability and prosperity, bonded together in partnership in dynamic development and in a community of caring societies”.[17] In December 2005, the member countries agreed to establish the ASEAN Charter by a joint declaration and at the 13th ASEAN Summit in November 2007, the ten countries signed the Charter, which came into force on 15 December 2008. The signing of the Charter is a milestone for the integration within ASEAN. The Charter serves as a legal and institutional framework, as well as an inspiration for ASEAN in the years ahead, with the aim of narrowing the development gap among its members and promoting ASEAN’s integration process through the creation of an ASEAN Community. Its basic principles include, inter alia, “respect for the principles of territorial integrity, sovereignty and non interference and national identities” and “promoting regional peace and identity, peaceful settlements of disputes through dialogue and consultation, and the renunciation of aggression”. The Charter has again shown to the world the determination of the ASEAN member countries for its integration.

The establishment of ASEAN did play a role among its member states on encouraging the peaceful settlement of disputes, even though it is the relevant countries that made a decisive role in choosing the peacuful means. For example, in 2002 and 2008 the territorial dispute over Sipadan and Ligitan between Indonesia and Malaysia and that over Pedra Branca/Pulau Batu Puteh, Middle Rocks and South Ledge between Malaysia and Singapore were resolved by the decision from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) respectively. It is after mutual agreements that the relevant cases were put to ICJ. Such a positive role by ASEAN may set a good example for certain mechanism in the SCS region to deal with the disputes among relevant parties.

2. Strategic partnership between China and ASEAN

The 1997 financial crisis in Asia pushed ASEAN countries and China to a closer cooperation to override possible fluctuations in the current economic world. In 2001 China proposed the suggestion of China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) to emphasize the opportunities for cooperation and partnership, which was followed by the 2002 Framework Agreement on Economic Cooperation. In the process to FTA, it is noted that China is willing to accommodate ASEAN’s most important concerns.[18]

2003 marks the important events between ASEAN and China, when China acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, which demonstrated that the political trust between the two sides notably enhanced, and the Joint Declaration on Strategic Partnership for Peace and Security was signed between them. A five-year (2005-2010) Plan of Action to implement the Joint Declaration was adopted at the 8th ASEAN-China Summit in 2004 for the aim of strengthening the strategic partnership for regional peace, development and prosperity. Two agreements on trade in goods and trade in services were signed consecutively in 2004 and 2007.

In August 2009, the ASEAN-China Investment Agreement was signed. The conclusion of an Investment Agreement is timely as this provides an enabling environment that will lead to enhanced investment flows between both sides at a time when ASEAN and China are key emerging economies with strong economic prospects. To encourage investment in ASEAN countries, Chinese government set up the ASEAN-China Cooperation Fund in 2005. To further finance major ASEAN-China investment cooperation projects in infrastructure, energy and resources, information and communication technology and other fields, China unveiled a USD 10 billion China-ASEAN Investment Cooperation Fund in early 2009. All these agreements, declarations and following implementing actions expended the cooperation between ASEAN countries and China in general and economic cooperation in particular.

To peacefully manage the SCS issues, the ASEAN countries and China signed the 2002 DOC, followed by several ASEAN-China Senior Officials’ Meetings on the Implementation of the DOC. These meetings provide a first-track platform for relevant countries over the SCS issues to exchange views on furthering cooperation for the aim of confidence building. However, it is up to the parties themselves to put self-restraint to regulate their behaviors. The lack of a binding mechanism may lead individual countries to take activities to maximize self interests.

3. MEP, MSR and resources exploration

Various cooperation in MEP, MSR and resource exploration have been carried out in the South China Sea under different mechanisms. For example, under UNEP East Asian Seas Regional Programme and the Coordinating Body on Seas of East Asia (COBSEA), a project on “Reversing Environmental Degradation Trends in the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand” has been carried out and under the Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia (PEMSEA), various actions have been implemented in the chosen sites in the region[19], including the integrated coastal zone management, managing subregional sea areas and pollution hotspots and other environmental issues, and scientific research. At the 11th ASEAN-China Summit in 2007, “environment” was included as the 11th priority area of cooperation and it was agreed to establish an ASEAN-China Ministerial process to discuss issues related to the environment; an ASEAN-China Environmental Protection Centre and an ASEAN-China Information and Network Security Emergency Response Cooperation Framework. Marine environmental issues are included in the cooperation scheme.

Under the Indonesia-hosted series of workshops on Managing Potential Conflicts in the South China Sea, several projects are underway. They are Regional Cooperation in the field of Marine Science and Information Network in the SCS including the Marine Database Information Exchange and Networking Project (China), Tides and Sea Level Change and the Coastal Environment in the South China Sea Affected by Potential Climate Change (Indonesia), Training Program for Marine Ecosystem Monitoring (the Philippines) and Search and Rescue and Illegal Acts at Sea including Piracy and Armed Robbery (Malaysia). At the 19th Workshop this year, China and Chinese Taipei jointly proposed the Southeast Asia Network for Education and Training Project, which will be implemented in 2010 an 2011. It is the aim of the Workshops that through these projects, scholars in the SCS region share their experience and available scientific research information. However limited financial resources have prevented some projects from moving ahead more efficiently.

The only joint cooperation on marine resource exploration is the seismic exploration agreement signed among the oil and gas companies in China, the Philippines and Vietnam in March 2005. According to the agreement, the three parties will jointly gather two-dimensional and three-dimensional seismic data and process two-dimensional seismic data within an area of 140,000 square kilometers in three years. It was hailed by related governments as a milestone for joint development in the SCS. It is unclear how the involved companies move ahead after the three years. Wisdom is needed for furthering cooperation in this area.

4. Maritime security (MS)

Maritime security has been a focal concern for the littoral states in the Southeast Asian countries. A series of statements among the regional governments have shown the common determination on dealing with the security problems. These statements include, inter alia, the 2002 Statement on Cooperation against Piracy and Other Threats to Maritime Security; the 2005 Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore; the 2005 Batam Joint Statement of the Fourth Tripartite Ministerial Meeting of the Littoral States on the Strait of Malacca; and the 2005 Jakarta Statement on Enhancement of Safety, Security, and Environmental Protection in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore..[20]

Information sharing between intelligence and law enforcement and the ability for coordination are very important on attacking maritime terrorism and piracy. A trilateral political framework among Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines under the Agreement on Information Exchange and Establishment of Communication Procedures was reached in May 2002. After the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) was established in 2001, its member nations[21] agreed to set up an Information Sharing Center (ISC) in Singapore in 2004 to enhance the information exchange among Contracting Parties on incidents of piracy and armed robbery and to facilitate operational cooperation among them. The information sharing initiative has played an important role in recent captures of Islamic militants throughout Southeast Asia, such as the arrest of a JI bomb-maker in 2002 and the capture of JI cell leader bin Ali in 2003..[22]

The littoral countries have carried out cooperation among their law enforcers. The first Malsindo[23] naval patrols were launched in July 2004 and carried out regularly thereafter. The Malsindo Patrols is part of the Malacca Straits Security Initiative, which encompasses the security arrangements between the three littoral states. The “Eyes in the Sky” Initiative is also part of the Initiative. It was launched in 2005 by Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. Maritime issues were discussed at other regional forums resulting in agreements, such as the 2003 Bali Accord II by ASEAN and the Statement on Cooperation against Piracy and Other Threats to Maritime Security adopted at the 10th ARF Post-Ministerial Conference in June 2003.

Cooperation on security issues have also been promoted between China and ASEAN since 1997. They worked to actively implement the concept of enhancing mutual trust through dialogue, resolving disputes peacefully through negotiations and realizing regional security through cooperation. The 2002 DOC was signed to deal with the South China Sea issues and in 2003 the two sides issued the Joint Statement on Cooperation in the Field of Non-Traditional Security Issues, under which active cooperation on transnational issues has been conducted. A MOU on Cooperation in the Field of Non-traditional Security Issues was signed by ASEAN and China in January 2004. ASEAN and China convened several Informal Ministerial Consultations on Transnational Crime from 2005. In the joint Statement of ASEAN-China Commemorative Summit in 2006, they announced their commitment on working together in ensuring maritime security in the region; and strengthening regional cooperation on disaster management and emergency preparedness, including post-disaster reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts, with ASEAN taking the lead. All these commitments laid solid foundation for the cooperation between China and ASEAN countries on security issues.

5. Available mechanisms

The existing mechanisms provide successful experience for strengthening cooperation in the SCS region.  At present, the Forums on Circum Beibu Bay (the Gulf of Tonkin) Economic Cooperation Region and Pan Pearl River Delta Economic Cooperation Region, and the co-existing project of the Singapore-Johore-Riau Growth Triangle among Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, have laid the foundation for further development of regional economic cooperation. If the above three sections can be integrated while strengthening the cooperation between China and Vietnam and between China and the Philippines at the same time, the “triangular economic cooperation region” will take shape. With the planning and construction of the Pan-Asia railroads, the economic cooperation region could also be integrated into the Great Mekong Sub-region (GMS) Cooperation Zone, which would be a great contribution to the construction of CAFTA and would stimulate the economic and social development of countries and regions in the SCS Region.[24]


Joint efforts have been made for cooperation in varies fields in the South China Sea region. However in addition to economic cooperation, the actions in other fields are to some extent scattered, with less communication of information even if there are any achievements, which reduced the effectiveness of all efforts. Meanwhile unilateral actions in the SCS create a noise for regional peace and security because they are against the will of all related parties as stated in the 2002 DOC, which goes, “The modalities, scope and locations, in respect of bilateral and multilateral cooperation, should be agreed upon by the Parties concerned prior to their actual implementation”. As a semi-enclosed sea, any actions in the South China Sea could influence the livelihood of people living around there. It is to all people’s benefits that before a final resolution is reached over the territorial disputes, cooperation under certain agreed scheme(s) among the relevant countries should be promoted to coordinate activities in the fields of MS, MEP, MSR and joint development of marine resources. To achieve the goal of turning the South China Sea into “a sea of peace and a sea of cooperation”, a sub-regional South China Sea cooperation organisation is proposed, under which further cooperation shall be encouraged and activities be coordinated.

Strengthening economic cooperation in the SCS Region is the backdrop to the development of the CAFTA and the China-ASEAN Mechanism, as well as having the aim of integrating the GMS Economic Cooperation Zone, Pan-Pearl River Economic Cooperation Zone and the Singapore-Johore-Riau Growth Triangle. Therefore, the economic cooperation in the SCS Region should be carried out in line with the China-ASEAN Mechanism for the purpose of enriching the content of the CAFTA. Strengthening cooperation can also function to weaken the SCS disputes, maintaining peace and maritime safety in the SCS Region to create favorable conditions for further cooperation.

Chinawill always adhere to the principles of friendly consultation on an equal footing, reciprocity and mutual benefits, and common development in the process of participating and promoting economic cooperation in the SCS Region. Its diplomacy in relations with its neighbours is “to build friendly relationships and partnerships with its neighbors” while the starting point of its policy is “to implement the policy of creating an amicable, secure and prosperous neighborhood”. China will make joint efforts together with its neighbouring countries to raise the living standards and promote common development in the area to maintain the peace, security and stability of the region.

Li Jianwei

Deputy Director, China National Institute for the South China Sea Studies

Author’s Biography

Li Jianwei

Li Jianweiis Deputy Director and Research Fellow of Research Center for Maritime Economy, China’s National Institute for the South China Sea Studies. Her research interests are dispute resolution in the South China Sea region, Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing activities and their impacts, and comparative study of the UK and Chian trade unions. After joining China’s National Institute for the South China Sea Studies in 2005, she has actively invovled in related research programmes for the peaceful resolution of the South China Sea Issues and for promoting economic cooperation in the South China Sea region. The research or conference papers of which she is the author or co-author include: The Bi-Annual Report on the Situations in the South China Sea, 2008-9, The Annual Report on the Situations in the South China Sea, 2006, “Hainan’s Role in the Management of the South China Sea Issues—a Case Study of the Gulf of Tonkin,” “Closing the Net against Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing: the Case of China,” and “Strengthening Economic Cooperation in the South China Sea Region: China’s Perspective”. She has also paticipated in the series of workshops on Managing Potential Conflicts in the South China Sea hosted by Indonesia and involved in governmental negotiations regarding the South China Sea issues.



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Various articles from ASEAN website.

Various articles from Xiuhuanet.

Wu, Shicun and Li, Jianwei, “Promoting Economic Cooperation in the South China Sea Region: China’s Perspectives,” Paper presented at the International Conference on “the South China Sea: Sustaining Ocean Productivities, Maritime Communities and the Climate”, Kuantan, Malaysia, 25-29 November 2008.

Wu, Shicun, The Disputes over Nanshang: Origin and Development, China Economic Publishing House, 2009.



[1]The writer extends her gratitude to Dr. WU Shicun, President of China National Institute for the South China Sea Studies, for his valuable advice and suggestions to lead to finishing this paper.

[2]Article 1 of the 2002 DOC points out that the principles governing parties on dealing with the South China Sea issues include the Charter of the United Nations, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, and other universally recognized principles of international law which shall serve as the basic norms governing state-to-state relations. Meanwhile, Article 4 emphasizes the non-use of force and friendly consultation and negotiation.

[3]The 11 signatories include China and all 10 ASEAN countries of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

[4]The 9 southern provinces are Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangxi, Guangxi (autonamous region), Hainan, Hunan, Sichuang, Yunna and Guizhou.

[5]Calculated from provided figures in Table 1.

[6]UNCLOS 74(3) reads, “Pending agreement as provided in paragraph 1 (refer to the delimitation agreement of the exclusive economic zone), the States concerned, in a spirit of understanding and cooperation, shall make every effort to enter into provisional arrangements of a practical nature and, during this transitional period, not to jeopardize or hamper the reaching of the final agreement. Such arrangements shall be without prejudice to the final delimitation.” And UNCLOS 83(3) has the same wording regarding the delimitation of the continental shelf.

[9] and

[10]In the joint communiqué, both countries reiterated their efforts to maintain the peace and stability in the SCS region and agreed to implement the follow-up action of the 2002 DOC. Both countries support the relevant countries in the SCS issue to “shelve the disputes and explore joint developments” in the disputed area in the SCS. 



[13]Alice D. Ba, “China and ASEAN: Renavigating Relations for a 21st-Century Asia,” Asian Survey, Vol. XLIII, No. 4, 2003, p.629,

[14]John Ravenhill, “Is China an Economic Threat to Southeast Asia?” Asian Survey, Vol. Issue 5, 2006, p.664.

[15]Hasjim Djalal, “Climate Change, Sea Level Rise, and Their Impacts on Indonesia,” a paper delivered at the 19th Workshop on Managing the Potential Conflicts in the South China Sea, 11-14 November, 2009.

[16]Joshua H. Ho, “Regional Responses to the Treat of Piracy and Maritime Terrorism in the Malacca and Singapore Straits,” Maritime Security Conference paper, Haikou, China, 2005, p. 3.


[18]Alice D. Ba, “China and ASEAN: Renavigating Relations for a 21st-Century Asia,” Asian Survey, Vol. XLIII, No. 4, 2003, p.639.

[19]PEMSEA Sites include, among others, Bali and Sukabumi of Indonesia; Batangas, Bataan and Cavite of the Philippines; Chonburi, Thailand; Danang and Quang Nam of Vietnam; Port Klang, Malaysia; Xiamen and Bohai Sea of China; Manila Bay; Gulf of Thailand; and the Malacca Straits.

[20]John F. Bradford, “Shifting the Tides Against Piracy in Southeast Asian Waters,” Asian Survey, Vol. 48, Issue 3, 2008, p. 482.

[21]The seventeen member countries of ReCAAP include the People's Republic of Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, the Kingdom of Cambodia, the People's Republic of China, the Republic of India, the Republic of Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, the Lao People's Democratic Republic, Malaysia, the Union of Myanmar, the Kingdom of Norway, the Republic of the Philippines, the Republic of Singapore, the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, the Kingdom of Thailand, and the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam.

[22]Andrew Chau, “Security Community and Southeast Asia: Australia, the U.S. and ASEAN’s Counter-terror Strategy,” Asian Survey, Vol. 48, Issue 4, p. 634.

[23]Malsindo refers to the three countries of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

[24]Shicun, Wu and Jianwei, Li, “Promoting Economic Cooperation in the South China Sea Region: China’s Perspectives,” Paper presented at the International Conference on “the South China Sea: Sustaining Ocean Productivities, Maritime Communities and the Climate”, Kuantan, Malaysia, 25-29 November 2008.

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