2011: Cooling Temperatures in the South China Sea

A U.S. Coast Guard seaman stands lookout watch in the South China Sea as two Republic of Singapore ships pass by U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mellon during an exercise as part of Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) on July 14, 2010. (CARAT/Flickr)

This is part of a series of year-end posts on Asia Blog written by Asia Society experts and Associate Fellows looking back on noteworthy events in 2011. You can read the entire series here.

After another year of noise and smoke in 2011, temperatures on the issue of South China Sea have cooled down considerably.

In June, China and the U.S. held their first round of Consultation on Asia Pacific Affairs in Honolulu, and the two sides addressed this issue to better mutual understanding. At the end of August, on the occasion of welcoming Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III to China, Xinhua News Agency put forward the following statement: "China has always made itself loud and clear that it has indisputable sovereignty over the sea's islands and surrounding waters, which is part of China's core interests."

This seems to set all the rest of the waters comprising the South China Sea as not being a part of China's core interests — virtually assuring China's neighbors and other stakeholders (such as America) freedom of navigation in those regions (which probably account for the majority of the South China Sea).

In August, China and ASEAN agreed on guidelines for implementing the 2002 Declaration of the Code of Parties in the South China Sea. It's possible this will serve as an interim document before a Code of Conduct is eventually put into place. In October, China and Vietnam signed an accord on basic principles for settling their maritime disputes, including conducting bilateral talks to settle relevant disputes if such disputes involve only themselves. At the China-ASEAN meeting in Bali in October, Premier Wen Jiabao declared that China will set up a fund to promote maritime cooperation between China and ASEAN states.

Despite these attempts to state China's position more clearly and loudly, much more effort is needed to dispel distrust and build cooperation:

  • China claims the waters "close" to all islands in the South China Sea as its core interests. How close are they? Mere territorial waters or entire exclusive economic zones (EEZ)?
  • China would help protect freedom of navigation on the high seas.  But if it views an EEZ as part of its core interests, how would it handle freedom of navigation in that EEZ?
  • If waters beyond those "close" to islands in the South China Sea aren't China's core interests, would they be viewed as pure high seas, or something else? How would that status be compatible with the "nine-dashed-lines" (the area traditionally claimed by China in its map of the South China Sea)?
  • Since Vietnam, for instance, has already occupied many of the Spratly Islands, what is the significance — by committing not to use force to settle disputes — of making a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea? Given the fact that these islands are occupied already by various stakeholders, and given the fact that none of them have surrendered their occupation to date, a no-use-of-force commitment is simply equivalent to a perpetual status quo. Are both sides prepared for this outcome?

The above four sets of questions will define peace and stability in the South China Sea — for 2012 and many years to come.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Shen Dingli
Shen Dingli is a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai. He is also the executive dean of Fudan's Institute of International Studies, and director of the Center for American Studies. He is an Asia Society Associate Fellow.