By Bonnie Glaser
Agreement between China and ASEAN on a set of guidelines to implement the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) is a welcome development, but it is doubtful that this heralds a change in Beijing’s approach to handling the territorial disputes with its neighbors, as claimed by Yang Fang. The eight guidelines have taken nine years to negotiate due to a dispute between China and ASEAN over the inclusion of language permitting the ten member states of ASEAN to confer among themselves before talking to Beijing. ASEAN dropped this demand, paving the way for the signing of the Bali agreement.
The impetus came from a shared desire to set a positive tone and atmosphere at the ASEAN Regional Forum last month. The result was a set of vague statements that fall far short of the needed binding code of conduct that will prevent the reoccurrence of recent incidents such as the severing of cables of a PetroVietnam survey ship, the construction activities on Amy Douglas Bank and other acts of intimidation by China. The document does nothing to identify behaviors that are unacceptable nor does it include consequences for violations. It does not even contain progress toward implementing the basic confidence-building measures that were outlined in the DOC, including holding dialogues among defense officials; notifying other parties of planned military exercises, and exchanging information.
Until these steps are taken, there is little reason to be optimistic that joint development of oil and gas will take place. In the meantime, China continues to insist that territorial disputes be discussed bilaterally, which enables Beijing to bring pressure to bear on its smaller, weaker neighbors. Moreover, the Chinese persist in their stance that the US has no direct interests in the South China Sea, despite Secretary Clinton’s claims to the contrary. And Beijing shows no readiness to clarify the nature of its territorial claims in the South China Sea or provide a justification for its claims on the basis of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
China’s decision to agree to the guiding principles is nothing more than a tactical step aimed at assuaging regional worries about China’s aggressive behavior and constraining Washington’s ability to intervene. It does not signal a strategic shift in Beijing’s handling of maritime territorial disputes. Some reports even suggest that China’s position is already hardening. Barry Wain writes that China has notified ASEAN that it wants to delete it’s one minor concession—ASEAN’s intention to consult—from the summary record of their agreement. It is too early to join hands and sign Kumbaya. The Bali agreement will only be judged a success if it paves the way for a binding accord that sets out rules of the road at sea that can both prevent conflict and promote shared economic prosperity in the region.
Bonnie Glaser is a Senior Fellow in the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS.