Implementing CBMS in the 2002 DOC: A roadmap to managing the South China Sea dispute, by Ian Storey

Tuesday, 02 August 2011 08:20 tuan anh

Tensions are rising in the South China Sea due a combination of factors including the failure of ASEAN and China to implement cooperative confidence building measures (CBMs) outlined in the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). There is an urgent need for ASEAN and China to move forward with the concrete implementation of the DOC. This paper recommends how some of the CBMs identified in the DOC can be operationalized




Tensions are rising in the South China Sea due a combination of factors including the failure of ASEAN and China to implement cooperative confidence building measures (CBMs) outlined in the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). If present trends continue, and tensions are allowed to fester, there is a growing risk of miscalculation and even conflict. Stability in the South China Sea is vital for the continued economic development of countries in the Asia Pacific, and regional states voiced their concerns in 2010 at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus). Due to the increasing frequency of incidents at sea, there is an urgent need for ASEAN and China to move forward with the concrete implementation of the DOC. This paper recommends how some of the CBMs identified in the DOC can be operationalized.


When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton figuratively waded into the turbulent waters of the South China Sea at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in July 2010 by declaring the sea to be “pivotal” to regional security and that freedom of navigation was a “national interest”, it was yet another sign that the contentious territorial dispute had worked its way back to the top of Southeast Asia’s security agenda. Security analysts have noted the cyclical nature of tensions in the South China Sea, and how since 2007 tensions have been on the upswing due to rising nationalism (especially in Vietnam and China), growing competition for maritime resources such as fisheries, oil and gas, and attempts by the various claimants to strengthen their sovereignty claims over the profusion of islets and rocks that dot the 1.2 million square miles of sea. Overall, however, it is China that sets the tone of the dispute and over the past three years, Beijing has become more assertive in the South China Sea by, among other things, putting pressure on foreign energy corporations to suspend exploration projects in disputed waters, tightening the enforcement of its annual unilateral fishing ban, and increasing the frequency —and aggressiveness— of patrols undertaken by the Chinese navy and maritime law enforcement agencies. Even Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, the leader of a country which since 1993 has played down friction in the South China Sea, has characterized China’s behaviour as “more assertive than ever before”.[1]

Disappointingly, as tensions have risen, the 2002 ASEAN-China Declaration on the Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea has singularly failed to ameliorate the problem. But if the political will is there, the DOC could be an important mechanism to help tamp down tensions and promote stability. While some analysts have described the DOC as a sick hospital patient hooked up to a life support machine ―and others have written it off as a “dead letter”― the fact of the matter is that the ASEAN-China agreement is the only existing framework which can be applied to manage the dispute. Indeed the DOC contains some potentially very useful confidence building measures (CBMs) —such as the need to improve safety of navigation and communication at sea, i.e. putting measures in place to avoid the growing number of skirmishes at sea— which, if properly implemented and adhered to, could reduce the risk of miscalculation and, in extremis, conflict. The purpose of this paper is to recommend ways in which ASEAN and China should move forward to achieve the concrete implementation of CBMs contained in the DOC.

The 2002 DOC: Key Principles and Objectives

The DOC was signed on 4 November 2002 during the Eighth ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The agreement was lauded by both sides. Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who signed the accord for China, described the DOC as a “symbol that would lead to new relations between China and ASEAN”.[2] Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji praised the DOC as marking a “higher level of political trust between the two sides [that would] contribute to regional peace and stability”.[3] Philippine Foreign Minister Blas Ople declared the agreement a “major leap for peace”.[4] Was the approbation justified? What were the key principles and objectives of the DOC and since it was signed have those principles been adhered to and the objectives met?

The two page document builds on the 1992 Declaration and 1995 Sino-Philippine code of conduct and therefore covers a good deal of familiar ground.[5] The preamble notes the determination of all parties to develop closer cooperation “with a view to promoting a 21st century-oriented partnership of good neighbourliness and mutual trust” and the need to “promote a peaceful, friendly and harmonious environment” in the South China Sea so as to enhance regional peace and stability. Significantly, the preamble states that the purpose of the agreement is not to resolve the problem but to “enhance favourable conditions for a peaceful and durable solution of differences and disputes” —in other words, the DOC should serve as a conflict management and not a conflict resolution mechanism.

Following the preamble, the DOC enumerates the following principles in ten paragraphs. First, that the parties are committed to observing the norms of interstate relations and international law as contained in instruments such as the UN Charter, the TAC, UNCLOS and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. Second, the signatories pledge to “build trust and confidence” in conformity with those norms. Third, that respect for freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea be adhered to. Fourth, that a resolution to the dispute be arrived at through peaceful means and without resort to force “through friendly consultations and negotiation by the sovereign states directly concerned”. Fifth, the signatories agree to “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes” including “refraining from action of inhabiting” presently unoccupied atolls. Paragraph 5 goes on to identify activities through which the parties can “build trust and confidence” including dialogues between defence and military officials, humane treatment for persons in danger or distress (i.e. search and rescue or SAR), advanced notification of military exercises in the area, and voluntary exchange of “relevant” information. Six, the parties agree to undertake “cooperative activities”, either bilaterally or multilaterally, such as marine environmental protection and scientific research, safety of navigation at sea, SAR, and combating transnational crime. Seven, the parties agree to continue “consultations and dialogues” on the dispute. Eighth, that all signatories respect the provisions in the DOC. Ninth, that other countries be encouraged to respect the principles contained in the agreement. Tenth, agreement that a code of conduct for the South China Sea would “further promote peace and stability in the region”.

As a compromise agreement, the DOC had its strengths and weaknesses. The most positive aspect was the recognition by all parties that the South China Sea dispute had a direct impact on regional peace and stability, and hence economic growth. In this context, pledges to resolve the problem through peaceful negotiations, abjure force of arms, and respect freedom of navigation were particularly welcome. The inclusive and exclusive nature of the agreement was both a strength and weakness. The participation of all ten ASEAN members —and not just the four claimant countries— highlighting the importance the South China Sea holds for the economic development and food security of all Southeast Asian states. However, it also meant that future discussions would include ASEAN members which do not have a direct stake in the dispute. As examined later, this would become an issue with the PRC. Moreover, the DOC is exclusive in that Taiwan was not invited to sign, principally due to Beijing’s policy of limiting Taipei’s international space. Exclusion of one-sixth of the disputants is clearly a major shortcoming. Three other weaknesses also undermined the utility of the DOC. First, the vagueness of the language, specifically what constitutes “self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes”. Second, no mention is made of the agreement’s geographical coverage. And third, the absence of sanctions should one of the signatories be deemed to have violated the agreement.


Adherence and Implementation

Adherence by the various claimants to the principles enshrined in the DOC has been mixed. Most encouragingly, all of the claimants have scrupulously abided by the prohibition on occupying and building new structures on vacant atolls. However, the record is much less impressive regarding the pledge to “exercise self restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability”. The main problem is that the clause is inherently ambiguous and thus open to interpretation by the claimant countries. Since 2002 claimant countries —especially Vietnam and China— have accused each other of violating the “self restraint” clause multiple times in response to activities undertaken in the South China Sea. In April 2004, for instance, both Manila and Beijing lodged protests with Hanoi for conducting a seven-day cruise for government officials and tourists to atolls occupied by Vietnamese forces —Hanoi countered that it had “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratlys and that the cruise constituted “normal” activities”.[6] Because self-restraint was not spelled out, Vietnam could legitimately make this claim.

The rapid militarization of the atolls has also negatively impacted stability in the area. As described earlier, the DOC does not proscribe the upgrade of existing structures, and all the claimants bar Brunei (the only party to the dispute not to have occupied any of the islands) have considerably expanded their military facilities in the Spratlys with little regard for the “self restraint” clause. Vietnam and China have been the most active in this regard, followed by Malaysia; the Philippines less so due to budgetary restrictions. Vietnam, for instance, has built new defensive positions, airstrips, piers, barracks and communication systems on all its 21 atolls.[7] Claimant countries have established regular air, sea and postal links to their insular possessions. Since 1999 China has imposed a unilateral moratorium on fishing in the South China Sea during May-August, and in recent years has stepped up the frequency of naval patrols to enforce the ban.[8]

Part of the reason why claimant countries have accelerated activities in the South China Sea designed to bolster their jurisdictional claims stems from the decision handed down by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2002 which granted sovereignty to Malaysia of two islands —Sipadan and Ligitan― off the coast of Borneo. The ICJ ruled that Malaysia and not Indonesia was entitled to ownership of the islands because the former was able to demonstrate the stronger case in terms of effectivities: acts of administration demonstrating effective exercise of authority over the islands, including the construction of lighthouses.[9] Although none of the disputants has shown willingness to submit their claims in the South China Sea to the ICJ, the implications of the court’s decision was not lost on them.

The role of UNCLOS —which the parties reaffirmed their respect for in the DOC— has merely complicated the dispute and generated greater friction between the ASEAN claimants and China. In early 2009, in order to meet a 13 May deadline, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia made submissions to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS or the Commission) in respect to “extended” continental shelf areas, including in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.[10] China objected to the submissions as an infringement of its sovereignty, and called on the Commission to dismiss them (the Philippines too objected to the submissions made by Vietnam and Malaysia). In the event of a contested claim the Commission lacks a mandate to consider the submissions, effectively rendering the process inutile.

The extent to which the parties have moved to “build trust and confidence” in the eight years since the DOC was signed has also been highly disappointing. Paragraph 5 calls on the parties to conduct “dialogues and exchanges of views” between their military establishments. Several Southeast Asian countries have initiated annual defence and security dialogues with the PRC since the DOC was signed, including the Philippines and Vietnam, though Malaysia and Brunei have yet to do so. Yet it remains unclear whether with the South China Sea has been a topic for substantive discussion at these meetings. Paragraph 5 also encourages the parties to notify each other of forthcoming military exercises in the South China Sea but there is no evidence to suggest that this has been occurring on a regular or systematic basis.

Paragraph 6 of the DOC enumerates a series of CBMs aimed at building trust and cooperation. Thus far, however, only one has been operationalized and with disappointing results. In 2005 the Philippines, Vietnam and China agreed to conduct a joint three-year seismic survey in the South China Sea to ascertain hydrocarbon deposits. The three governments justified the project on the grounds that it constituted “marine scientific research” identified in Paragraph 6 part c. When the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) was signed, it was widely hailed as a potential breakthrough in the dispute. While seductive in concept, the JMSU proved fundamentally flawed in execution. The contents of the agreement were never made public in order to forestall criticism, and it was not until 2008 that it was revealed that one-sixth of the survey area lay within Philippine territorial waters and outside the claims of both China and Vietnam.[11] Critics of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo labelled the JMSU unconstitutional and a quid pro quo for concessional loans extended by Beijing to Manila for infrastructure projects including a national broadband network and the revitalization of the country’s rail network (these projects subsequently stalled or collapsed amid allegations of corruption). Further, the JMSU was criticized because the Chinese signatory, the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), controlled the gathering, storage and analysis of data that it did not fully share with its Philippine and Vietnamese counterparts.[12] In an effort to avoid another impeachment challenge, Arroyo distanced her government from the JMSU and, the agreement lapsed in June 2008. Since then, no attempt has been made to revive the process.

ASEAN and China’s failure to operationalize so few CBMs can be attributed to the lack of progress towards agreeing on a set of guidelines to implement the DOC. Two years after it was inked, a process was put in place to achieve this goal. In December 2004 the two sides convened a Senior Officials Meeting (SOM) on the Implementation of the DOC.[13] At that meeting it was agreed to establish a Joint Working Committee (JWC) to recommend guidelines to implement the DOC, including cooperative projects. The JWG met three times, in 2005, 2006 and informally in 2008, but failed to reach a consensus on the way forward.

By 2009 it had become apparent that talks on implementing the DOC had reached an impasse. The main obstacle was the modalities of future discussions. China indicated that it would prefer to discuss the issue with each of the four ASEAN claimants first, followed by non-claimant ASEAN countries before finally meeting with ASEAN as a group.[14] Apparently, China was concerned that ASEAN as a group would formulate a “united front” on the South China Sea, a view the ASEAN states found puzzling because it is the organization’s standard practice to meet as a group to discuss issues before meeting with Dialogue Partners.[15] China seemed opposed to all discussions of the issue with ASEAN. Prior to the ASEAN Summit in Cha-am, Thailand in October 2009, China’s ambassador to ASEAN, Xue Hanqin, argued that because ASEAN was composed of both claimant and non-claimant countries, it was not appropriate to discuss the South China Sea issue at ASEAN-China meetings, and that the problem should be addressed through bilateral mechanisms.[16] Accordingly, at Cha-am, the dispute was not discussed.[17]

In January 2010, Vietnam took over the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN, seemingly determined to break the deadlock over the DOC. Within weeks of becoming chair, Vietnam had hosted a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Danang in an effort to build consensus over the issue. ASEAN leaders attended a summit meeting in Hanoi in April, and while the final communiqué made no reference to the dispute, at a post-summit press conference, Prime Minister Nguyen Minh Triet announced that ASEAN and Chinese officials had agreed to hold meetings to “discuss solutions to push the implementation of the DOC”, suggesting that China had finally agreed to meet with ASEAN as a group.[18] The JWG met for the first time since 2008 in Hanoi on 16 April 2010, where the two sides reportedly discussed ways to effect CBMs outlined in the DOC. The JWG was scheduled to meet again in late 2010 but the meeting has been postponed until January 2011 in Kunming, China.


An added complication to the DOC negotiation process is America’s decision to play a more proactive role in the dispute. During the 1990s, Washington was content to remain on the sidelines so long as freedom of navigation was respected. After 2007, however, senior US officials began to voice concern that rising tensions were undermining its strategic and economic interests. At the ARF meeting in July 2010 in Hanoi, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton —describing the South China Sea as “pivotal” to regional security and freedom of navigation as a US national interest— offered to facilitate talks on implementing the DOC, a move widely interpreted as part of a campaign to push back against perceived Chinese assertiveness in the maritime domain. At the ARF meeting, 11 other countries raised the issue, an unprecedented development in that since its inception China had always managed to keep the issue off the agenda. In response to Clinton’s comments, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi declared China’s resolute opposition to the “internationalization” of the South China Sea dispute.[19] Even the ASEANs themselves have deep misgivings about overt US involvement lest Beijing walk away from the whole process. Washington has taken note of its friends’ concerns, and has back pedalled on the offer: US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell opined in October 2010 that he did not think it would be appropriate for the US to “play a direct role” on the DOC and that what it really wanted was to “facilitate an environment where claimants can feel more comfortable in dialogue”.[20] In political terms this means that Washington expects ASEAN to take the lead with China; in strategic terms it means the Obama administration is happy to bolster the presence of the US Navy in Asia’s maritime spaces and actively help Southeast Asian navies with capacity building support.

In addition to differences between ASEAN and China over the modalities of discussions, several underlying issues have contributed to the impasse over the DOC. The first is the lack of consensus within ASEAN itself over the South China Sea dispute. ASEAN members rallied in support of the Philippines in 1995 by issuing the statement of concern and raising their unease with the PRC directly at the first ASEAN-China Forum in Hangzhou in April.[21] During the second half of the 1990s, however, ASEAN’s united front on the South China Sea began to breakdown. The economic and political fallout from the 1997-1998 financial crisis pushed the territorial dispute down ASEAN’s agenda. Moreover, ASEAN consensus became victim to intramural squabbling. In particular, criticisms by Philippine President Joseph Estrada over the arrest of Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia in 1998 strained Philippine-Malaysian political ties. Thus when China upgraded its facilities on Mischief Reef in November 1998, Manila sought in vain to elicit a cohesive response from its fellow members, prompting Philippine Under-secretary for Foreign Affairs to comment bitterly that “some of our ASEAN friends are either mute, timid or cannot go beyond the espousal of general principles of peaceful sentiments”.[22] The breakdown in consensus was brought into sharper relief in mid-1999 when Malaysia occupied Erica Reef and Investigator Shoal, two atolls also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam. The Philippines accused Kuala Lumpur of violating the organization’s own 1992 Declaration. The expansion of ASEAN from six to ten members during 1995-1999 also made consensus more difficult to achieve, especially as Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia are non-claimants in the South China Sea. All three countries have close political and economic ties to the PRC, and, absent a direct stake in the dispute, seem unwilling to rock the boat with Beijing over the territorial problem. As a result, since the early 2000s ASEAN’s position on the South China Sea has been to merely preserve the status quo and prevent tensions from getting out of hand — a position that seems increasingly untenable.

The second underlying issue is China’s hardening position over its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. This is partly a reflection of Beijing’s increasing self-confidence, as well as the rapid modernization of the Chinese Navy which has given the country the wherewithal to pursue a more assertive policy in the maritime domain, including a stronger presence in the South China Sea. It also reflects growing concern in the PRC that the other claimants are expropriating maritime resources —specifically oil, gas and fisheries— which do no belong to them. Thus the Chinese authorities have been vocal in their criticism of “illegal” fishing activities undertaken by foreign trawlers and the arrest and alleged mistreatment of Chinese fishermen by the maritime enforcement agencies of other countries.[23] Insofar as hydrocarbon deposits are concerned, China has implemented a more hard-line position with foreign oil companies engaged in projects off Vietnam’s coast. During 2007-2008, for instance China applied pressure on energy corporations such as BP and ExxonMobil to suspend projects in the Con Son Basin, a tactic corroborated by the US State Department and, indirectly, by the PRC Foreign Ministry itself.[24] Most significantly, reports suggest that China now regards the South China Sea as one of its “core interests”, though Beijing has yet to officially confirm this.[25] If these reports do indeed reflect official thinking in Beijing, it would elevate the status of the South China Sea to sensitive core sovereignty issues such as Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. Two implications flow from this: first, that the sovereignty issue is non-negotiable; and second, that China reserves the right to employ force to uphold its claims. Non-negotiation and the right to use force clearly go against the grain of the principles enshrined in the DOC.

Next Steps Forward

The uptick in friction over competing sovereignty claims and maritime resources in the South China Sea, together with the shifting balance of military power in the PRC’s favour, highlights the urgent need for ASEAN and China to push forward with the concrete implementation of the DOC lest tensions escalate into a destabilizing pattern of armed confrontations at sea. As comments made by the 12 countries at the 2010 ARF highlight, other major stakeholders are also keen to see forward momentum. Given the sensitivities and obstacles identified earlier in this paper, agreement towards a more formal and binding code of conduct seems out of reach. Consequently it would be better for ASEAN and China to work within the existing framework provided by the DOC. Recognition by all parties that instability in the South China Sea is in no country’s interests, as well as the generally cordial and positive climate of China-Southeast Asia relations, provides grounds for optimism that meaningful progress can be achieved before the window of opportunity closes.

At the political level a change in tack is required of both sides. For its part, ASEAN as an organization needs to reach a common position on the South China Sea beyond maintaining the status quo. Past experience suggests that China is more willing to take notice of ASEAN’s concerns when it projects a united front. At the same time, ASEAN should also reassure Beijing that it is not “ganging up” on China, or that it seeks to promote the claims of its member states. China is the most important player in the territorial dispute, and its policies and actions tend to set the tone for the dispute. As such, it is incumbent on the PRC to do a better job of allaying regional concerns beyond the espousal of existing platitudes. Greater transparency is key, both in terms of what China is claiming in the South China Sea, and the motivations driving its programme of military modernization. The dispute must become a formal item of discussion at ASEAN-China meetings and not swept under the carpet. This should not be too contentious given that all parties to the DOC have agreed on the need to “continue their consultations and dialogues” to “promote a peaceful, friendly and harmonious environment in the South China Sea … for the advancement of peace, stability, economic growth and prosperity in the region”.

As noted, the “self restraint” clause is problematic due to the vagueness of the language. Agreement to freeze all further building activities on the occupied atolls would appear to be an unrealistic goal, especially given the problems of verification. However, a number of measures could be undertaken to build trust and mitigate tensions. As per Paragraph 5, there needs to be more discussion between the armed forces of individual ASEAN countries and China. The annual defence and security forums would be an appropriate venue, and Malaysia and Brunei should be encouraged to establish annual defence talks with China. Joint working groups could then be established to explore the following CBMs:

·      Advanced notification of military exercises and naval patrols in the South China Sea. At present, claimant countries do no inform each other of military exercises or deployments in the area, and this has become a source of tension.

·     The establishment of telephone hotlines between the defence departments or naval attaches that would facilitate the exchange of information between military officers to prevent standoffs from escalating. In this context the agreement between Vietnam and China in mid-2010 to set up a telephone hotline between senior leaders is to be welcomed and emulated by the other claimants.[26]

·     Serious consideration should be given to an Incidents at Sea agreement. A model worthy of close attention is the 1972 US-Soviet Prevention of Incidents On and Over the High Seas which, inter alia, required warships to remain well clear to avoid the risk of collision, maintain a safe distance from ships under surveillance, practice clear signalling when undertaking manoeuvres, and not to make simulated attacks on passing vessels, including from the air (US-USSR Agreement 1972). The fact that the US and China have failed to achieve meaningful progress on negotiating a similar agreement should not dissuade Southeast Asian countries from tabling the idea with the PRC at their annual defence talks or ADMM Plus.

·     Paragraph 6, parts a and b, suggests the claimants undertake joint projects to address “marine environmental protection” and “marine scientific research”. An obvious candidate for such a project would be fisheries, and the need to preserve fish stocks in the South China Sea. China’s annual unilateral fishing ban simply aggravates tensions and needs to be replaced with an inclusive agreement which addresses the concerns of all parties.

·     Paragraph 6, parts d and e, also calls on the signatories to cooperate in SAR operations and combating transnational crime. Both of these activities would require close coordination between, and possibly among, the armed forces of Southeast Asia and China in terms of training and at the operational level. SAR training exercises between the navies of China and Southeast Asia have thus far been limited to table top exercises and need to progress toward at sea exercises such as those conducted by the US Coast Guard, PLA, and Hong Kong Marine Police. Insofar as counter-piracy is concerned, a framework for cooperation already exists in the form of the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) ― which has an Information Sharing Centre in Singapore ― of which all ten ASEAN members and China are signatories (though Malaysia and Indonesia have not ratified the agreement due to sovereignty concerns). According to the International Maritime Bureau, while incidents of piracy across Southeast Asia have declined dramatically since 2005, the number of attacks in the South China Sea have risen: from 6 in 2005 to 13 in 2009.[27] Sino-ASEAN coordinated naval patrols to deal with the problem of piracy patrols in the South China Sea would be highly problematic given overlapping sovereignty claims. However, two pertinent examples could serve as models for future cooperation. Since 2006 China and Vietnam have held “joint” naval patrols in the Gulf of Tonkin one or twice a year.[28] More substantively, in 2005 the navies of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore launched coordinated patrols in the Strait of Malacca (joined by Thailand in 2008) despite maritime boundary disputes in the vital waterway.[29]

Outside of the DOC framework, claimant states could do much to build trust and lower tensions in the Spratlys by exercising greater transparency concerning their defence modernization programmes. Transparency measures would include candid discussion of national threat perceptions, strategic intentions, and military acquisitions. In 2009 Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Teo Chee Hean neatly captured the current situation when he noted that the Asia Pacific was in a state of strategic flux and that:

New points of friction can arise as more states seek to secure access to sea-lanes and resources, or to protect new claims to maritime zones, such as the Continental Shelf… With economic growth, states have more resources to spend on defence, and also more to defend. Of particular concern for the region are the overlapping and disputed claims to the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea. The potential for incidents to occur is high, especially as the value of these territories is elevated by their strategic location adjacent to key sea-lanes, and reports of valuable deposits in their seabed (emphasis added).”[30]


Teo called for greater transparency to reduce uncertainty, avoid misunderstandings, and increase trust through full disclosure of inventories, statements of strategic intent and security concerns, and practical cooperation in areas such as maritime security. Since the mid-1990s participants at the ASEAN Regional Forum have been encouraged to publish regular defense white papers so as to improve transparency: while the number of countries issuing such documents has increased, and their quality has improved, there remains considerable scope for improvement. One promising avenue for increased transparency is the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus), which brought together defense ministers from ASEAN and its eight Dialogue Partners in October 2010. While the South China Sea was not on the formal agenda, eight countries raised the issue. ADMM-Plus ministers agreed to establish five Expert Working Groups, including one on maritime security. Although China has argued that multilateral forums such as ADMM-Plus are not appropriate venues to discuss the South China Sea, given rising concern over developments in the area, the United States and other participants are likely to ensure it is addressed.[31]


The relationships between Southeast Asian countries and the PRC have been transformed for the better since the end of the Cold War, due mainly to the extraordinary growth of economic interaction as well as the steady expansion of institutional linkages between ASEAN and China. The institutionalization of Sino-ASEAN security links have not, however, kept pace with other functional areas due to inherent sensitivities. As a consequence, progress towards managing the South China Sea dispute has been dilatory. While both sides have made rhetorical commitments to lower tensions, promote cooperation and build trust, words have seldom been translated into action-oriented measures. Although the DOC was issued in 2002, no agreement has been reached on implementation guidelines due to a combination of factors: the infrequency of joint working group meetings (only four times in eight years); China’s reluctance to discuss the issue with ASEAN as a group; and disunity among the ASEAN members themselves. As a consequence, the militarization of the South China Sea has proceeded apace, tensions have ratcheted up and the United States has signalled its intention to pursue a more interventionist role in the dispute. This paperhas argued that unless the CBMs outlined in the DOC are operationalized, tensions will continue to simmer thus increasing the prospects of a military confrontation at sea, either by accident or by design./.

*This paper draws on Ian Storey, Managing the South China Sea Problem in ASEAN-China Relations: Progress, Problems and Prospects, paper presented at the RSIS-MacArthur Conference on Regional Security Cooperation Building Institutional Coherence in Asia’s Security Architecture: The Role of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Singapore, 19-20 July 2010; and Ian Storey, Asia’s Changing Military Balance of Power: Implications for the South China Sea Dispute, presentation delivered at Developing Disputed Maritime Energy Resources in Asia, National Bureau of Asian Research-MacArthur Foundation, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 6-7 August 2010.

Author’s biography

Dr. Ian Storey is a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore. He specializes in Asian security issues with a focus on Southeast Asia. His current research interests include Southeast Asia’s relations with external powers (specifically China and the United States), maritime security in the Asia-Pacific region, and China’s foreign and defense policies. At ISEAS he is the editor of the academic journal Contemporary Southeast Asia. Prior to joining ISEAS Ian was an Associate Professor at the U.S. Defense Department’s Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS) in Honolulu Hawaii from 2004-2007. Between 2001 and 2004 he was an Assistant Professor at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. Ian received his undergraduate degree from the University of Hull, England (1991), his Master’s degree from the International University of Japan (1995) and his doctorate from the City University of Hong Kong (2001).Ian has published articles in Asia Policy, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Naval War College Review, Asian Survey: An American Review, Jane’s Intelligence Review and Terrorism Monitor, and is a regular contributor to the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief and Singapore’s largest-circulation English language daily The Straits Times. He has written numerous book chapters and in 2002 co-edited The China Threat: Perceptions, Myths and Reality. His latest book is Southeast Asia and Rise of China: The Search for Security (forthcoming 2011). He can be contacted at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


[1]MalaysiaPM: China not indulging in power projection, China Daily, 29 September 2010.

[2]ASEAN, China sign document on territorial dispute, Kyodo, 4 November 2002.

[3]China, ASEAN sign pact on disputed South China Sea islands, ChinaOnLine News, 4 November 2002.

[4]ASEAN, China sign landmark, but weakened accord on South China Sea, Associated Press, 4 November 2002.

[5]ASEAN (1992) Declaration on the South China Sea. Available

[6]60 Viet tourists visit to Spratlys raises furor, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 20 April 2004.

[7]Life goes on in the Truong Sa archipelago, Outlook [Vietnam News Service] VI, no. 67 (July 2009).

[8]Gov’t urges China to quit Vietnam waters, Vietnam News Service, 8 June 2009.

[9]See Clive Schofield and Ian Storey, Energy Security and Southeast Asia: The Impact on Maritime Boundary and Territorial Disputes, Harvard Asia Quarterly IX, no. 4 (Fall 2005).

[10]See Clive Schofield and Ian Storey, The South China Sea Dispute: Increasing Stakes and Rising Tensions, Jamestown Foundation Occasional Paper (November 2009).

[11]Palace fails to reach decision on Spratlys deal, Philippine Star, 11 March 2008.


[13]Nguyen Hung Thao, The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea: A Vietnamese Perspective, 2002-2007, in S. Bateman and R. Emmers (eds), Security and International Politics in the South China Sea: Towards a Cooperative Management Regime. Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge, pp. 215-218.

[14]Kavi Chongkittavorn, Chinais searching for new ASEAN strategies, The Nation, 19 October 2009.

[15]Interview with senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, Singapore, 4 August 2010)

[16]We want good ties, says China, Straits Times, 22 October 2009.

[17]A diplomatic victory for China, South China Morning Post, 31 October 2009.

[18]No agreement on South China Sea reached at ASEAN Summit, Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 12 April 2010.

[19]Chinese Foreign Minister refutes fallacies on the South China Sea, China Daily, 25 July 2010.

[20]Media Roundtable at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, Kurt M. Campbell, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Tokyo, Japan, 6 October 2010.

[21]Why China is creating mischief in the Spratlys, Straits Times, 7 April 1995.

[22]But for Wales, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 10 February 1999.

[23]See Robert Sutter and Chin-Hao Huang, China-Southeast Asia Relations: Ferment over South China Sea, Comparative Connections: A Quarterly E-Journal on East Asia Bilateral Relations (July 2009).

[24]Testimony of Deputy Assistant Secretary Scot Marciel, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, US Department of State before the Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, 15 July 2009,; China opposes any act of violating its sovereignty, Xinhua News Agency, 27 July 2008.

[25]South China Sea part of core interests: Beijing, Straits Times, 6 July 2010.

[26]Vietnam, China to set up hotline for issues of major concern, Vietnam News Service, 3 July 2010.

[27]International Maritime Bureau, Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships: Annual Report 1 January – 31 December 2009 (January 2010), p. 5.

[28]The first joint patrol took place in April 2006. Subsequent patrols were conducted in December 2006, July 2007, October 2007 and May 2008. See Carlyle A. Thayer, The Structure of Vietnam-China Relations, 1991-2008, Paper for the 3rd International Conference on

Vietnamese Studies, Hanoi, Vietnam, 4-7 December 2008, p. 19.

[29]Ian Storey, Securing Southeast Asia’s Sea Lanes: A Work in Progress, Asia Policy, no. 6 (July 2008), pp. 95-127.

[30]Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Mr. Teo Chee Hean at the Shangri La Dialogue, Singapore, May 31, 2009,

[31]Ian Storey, Good start on Asean defence cooperation, Straits Times, 16 October 2010.

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