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Home Database The Third International Workshop on SCS
The Third International Workshop on SCS

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The South China Sea is a semi-enclosed sea governed by Part IX of the Law of the Sea Convention, which says in Article 123 that countries bordering such seas “should co-operate with each other in the exercise of their rights and the performance of their duties under this Convention”  More specifically, they are instructed to “endeavor, directly or through an appropriate regional organization (a) to co-ordinate the management, conservation, exploration, and exploitation of the living resources of the sea” and also to co-ordinate their activities “with respect to the protection and preservation of the marine environment.”  The countries bordering on the South China Sea have failed to create an effective regional organization, and their cooperation “directly” has been generally unsuccessful as well.  The Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia (COBSEA) has been mostly dysfunctional and the Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia (PEMSEA) has been modest in its accomplishments.  No effective organization to manage the shared fisheries has been established. 


In addition to China’s intransigence, conflict management and a resolution of the South China Seadispute has been hindered by problems of inter-ASEAN dynamics, and especially the issue of consensus. Because the South China Sea is vital to the economic and food security prospects of Southeast Asia, ASEAN member states have a strongly vested interest in stability and a peaceful settlement of the dispute. But ASEAN does not support the claims of four of its members nor does it take a position on the validity of China’s claims. While Vietnam and the Philippines have championed a Code of Conduct (CoC) for the South China Sea, China’s reluctance to pursue such a code presents a significant obstacle. The Philippine proposal to transform the South China Sea into a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation (ZoPFFC) is also problematic due to  opposition from Beijing and because it may require ASEAN to take a position on China’s expansive claims. In short, the prospects of realizing a CoC and the ZoPFFC are not very bright.

The efforts to develop cooperation for regional security and development, so far, has involved some formal approach of ASEAN and some informal approach by academic institutions and some informal unofficial approach by some South China Sea officials in their personal capacities. The formal approach has resulted in the Declaration of Conduct by the Foreign Minister of ASEAN and China in 2002 as well as by China and the Philippines, the Philippines and the Vietnam in formulating some confidence building measures or Code of Conduct between them. The informal approach has been initiated by Indonesia through the Workshop Process on Managing Potential Conflicts in the South China Sea since 1990. 

The escalating tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) in the last few years has been a major regional security concern in the Asia-Pacific. Against this backdrop, ASEAN, named one of the most successful regional organisations in the world, has not played a significant role in diffusing the heated quarrel among disputants. Efforts of ASEAN have brought about an eventful ARF in Hanoi in July 2010, and a set of vaguely worded guidelines for the implementation of the DOC in Bali in July 2011. However, as ASEAN is heading towards a Community, these results are far below what is expected from this group when dealing with a major regional security concern. ASEAN’s weakness in these disputes, apart from the divergent interests of ASEAN members and the limitation of ASEAN’s Way, is attributed to China’s efforts to maintain the disputes within bilateral negotiations. For many years, Beijing has objected to collective acts managing these already multilateral conflicts, claiming that China does not have territorial disputes with ASEAN and that any intention to ‘internationalise’ the issue will only make it more complicated. This paper argues that ASEAN has interests, responsibilities, and the ability to actively engage in the issue and contribute to the settlement of the dispute.

Although the Chinese have steadfastly maintained that the South China Sea dispute needs to be regarded as a purely local and regional regional affair,  it is increasingly regarded as a much more global concern. This is because it is widely seen as a means of assessing China’s future role and policy, an increasingly neuralgic matter for the United States and a number of other  external countries.  The strategic significance of the dispute is most obviously exemplified by the external concern for the dispute’s possible impact on the freedom of navigation and the extent, nature and consequences of the naval modernisation programmes of the claimants. Given the dangers inherent in the rising temperature, there is a clear need for clarity and cool heads both within the region and outside it. 

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South China Sea Studies

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