Cooperation in the South China Sea Under International Law

China International Studies | 作者: Hai Min & Zhang Aizhu | 时间: 2014-03-19 | 责编: Li Xiaoyu
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by Hai Min & Zhang Aizhu


Because oceans are inherently shifting and open, all coastal countries are concerned with the effective management and rational use of. For countries that border an enclosed or semi-enclosed sea, maritime cooperation is of vital necessity. In areas of enclosed or semi-enclosed seas, the activities of a single coastal country often produce effects on the whole sea area. If coastal countries act in an uncoordinated or unilateral way, their behavior will typically benefit themselves but hurt others. As a result, the overall maritime environment can be jeopardized, and the interests of the responsible country will suffer, creating a “lose-lose” outcome. But if coastal states are able to cooperate effectively, they can achieve synergy in numerous fields: the conservation of marine biological resources, environmental protection, scientific research, search and rescue operations, disaster prevention and reduction and the fight against crime, to name only a few areas. This will benefit the management, use and protection of the entire ocean.



I. Cooperation between Coastal Countries Bordering Enclosed or Semi-enclosed Seas


According to Article 123 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea(hereafter referred to as“ Convention” ), “States bordering an enclosed or semi-enclosed sea should cooperate with each other in the exercise of their rights and […] endeavor, 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 programs 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.”[1]As such, pragmatic cooperation between signatory states not only conforms to the common interests of all parties, but also is a legal obligation.

There have been many successful examples of cooperation between countries that border enclosed or semi-enclosed seas.


1. Wide-ranging cooperation among Mediterranean countries

In October 1990, ten western Mediterranean countries (Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, and Malta) officially founded the “5+5” Dialogue mechanism, which has provided a platform for dialogue between Mediterranean countries. In April 2010, the ten western Mediterranean countries held their first ministerial-level Conference on Environment and Renewable Energy, and adopted the “Oran Declaration.”[2] Participating countries agreed to work out regional environmental development plans, establish a joint expert committee comprised of the ten western Mediterranean countries, and make recommendations and seek collaborative solutions on environmental issues. The Conference adopted Algeria’s three recommendations to form an environmental and sustainable development rating agency in Oran, set up governmental and non-governmental consultation mechanisms on climate change between western Mediterranean countries, and develop the climate plans of them.

The Western Mediterranean Joint Expert Committee communi-cates on a regular basis and makes feasible suggestions regarding environmental issues. It also works to strengthen cooperation and has established a marine pollution warning system, bringing people together to handle marine pollution. Non-governmental organizations have been encouraged to get involved, while initial efforts have been made to ensure that residents have access to drinking water. The efficiency of developing and utilizing water resources has been improved, and the risk of disasters (droughts, floods and pollution) has been reduced. The “Oran Declaration” also established a Mediterranean water strategy that will help strengthen the exchange of technology and experience, particularly in fields such as desalination, wastewater treatment and groundwater systems repair. The Declaration also called for closer collaboration in the field of renewable energy and explicitly urged countries on the northern shore of the Mediterranean to transfer clean energy technologies to countries on the southern shore. Because the “5+5” dialogue covers a growing number of fields, it is gradually becoming an effective mechanism of cooperation between the countries on the northern and southern shores of the western Mediterranean. Their cooperation has extended to clean energy, regional security, and the fighting of illegal immigration, producing positive effects across the region.


2. Maritime security cooperation along the Western Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea

In January 2009, the coastal countries of the Western Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea held a high-level meeting in Djibouti convened by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). At the meeting, countries adopted a code of conduct regarding joint cooperation in combating piracy. Nine countries (Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Maldives, Seychelles, Somalia, Tanzania and Yemen) signed the code at the closing session. The code requires signatories to cooperate to the fullest possible extent and work together to repress piracy and armed robbery against ships. The signatories are committed to sharing and reporting relevant information with each other; interdicting ships suspected of engaging in acts of piracy or armed robbery; ensuring that the suspects are apprehended and prosecuted; and helping make sure that ships that are the victims of piracy or armed robbery are properly cared for. In addition, the Djibouti meeting called on IMO members and other international and regional organizations to provide financial and technical support for the implementation of the code.


3. Cooperation between Black Sea coastal states on the prevention of marine pollution

In 1992, the six Black Sea coastal countries (Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russian Federation, Turkey and Ukraine) met in Bucharest and signed a convention on Black Sea pollution. The event is now known as the Bucharest Convention. The main objective of the convention was to prevent marine pollution caused by ships, especially by the ballasts of ships. The Black Sea Commission, comprised of a permanent secretariat to coordinate the implementation of the Bucharest Convention, was established as a result of the meeting.


4. Examples of jointly developing disputed waters

In addition to the above cases of cooperation between coastal countries, there have been many successful examples of joint development in other sea regions, especially in disputed waters. There are several fairly typical examples, including the 1979 Memorandum of Understanding and the 1990 Agreement signed by Malaysia and Thailand, which enabled the two countries to jointly develop the disputed waters in the Gulf of Thailand; the Timor Gap Treaty, signed by Australia and Indonesia in 1989, which helped the two countries jointly develop their disputed waters; the Treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea, signed by Australia and East Timor in 2006 to conduct joint development; the agreement adopted by Nigeria, Sao Tome and Principe in 2001; the Frigg Treaty, signed by Norway and Britain in 1976 to provide for their integrated development of the Frigg Field in the North Sea; and the Management and Cooperation Agreement, signed by Guinea-Bissau and Senegal in 1993, which has helped concerned countries develop disputed waters.

Most of the above-mentioned examples involve waters that are embroiled in territorial and maritime disputes between countries. But in all of these cases, the relevant countries were able to overcome these disputes and engage in fruitful cooperation. Such precedents indicate that despite being controversial, cooperation regarding enclosed or semi-enclosed sea regions is not only feasible but also consistent with international law and the times.

When considering the unresolved territorial and maritime disputes that exist across many regions, the Convention provides for enclosed or semi-enclosed sea cooperation without stipulating that it will resolve these disputes. None of the Convention’s articles state that relevant parties cannot cooperate with each other before the relevant maritime dispute is resolved. Instead, the Convention lists specific demands for coastal countries to cooperate with each other. According to Articles 74 and 83 of the Convention, concerned countries should make every effort to enter into provisional arrangements of a practical nature to promote cooperation, even before maritime delimitation agreements are reached. Such arrangements do not prevent coastal states from reaching final agreements on their larger disputes, whether or not they are territorial.

At present, there are more than 200 maritime boundaries that have not yet been clearly designated, especially in enclosed and semi-enclosed sea areas. But this has not hindered cooperation between coastal countries. Relevant countries have pushed to fulfill the fundamental obligations and principles stipulated in the Convention. Together, they have established cooperation mechanisms that strengthen the management and protection of the seas. Meanwhile, this practical cooperation has created favorable conditions for resolving disputes.


II. Current Cooperation in the South China Sea


The South China Sea is bordered by China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and other countries, making it a typical semi-enclosed sea. The South China Sea is a critical shipping hub between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and it ranks among the world’s most important maritime corridors. Each year more than 100,000 vessels (more than 40,000 of which have a rating of 10,000 tons) pass through the South China Sea. About two-thirds of the world’s total trade of liquefied natural gas is transported through the South China Sea, while more than 90 percent of oil imports headed to Japan, South Korea and the Chinese province of Taiwan also rely on this route. The South China Sea contains more than half of the nearly 40 shipping lines that link China to the outside world.

In addition, the South China Sea has abundant fisheries, as well as oil, gas and tourism resources. About 20 percent of the world’s fishery resources are located in the region. It holds about 11.2 billion barrels of oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves, and there are currently about 2,000 oil and gas wells in operation in the region. But the South China Sea is subject to some of the most frequent natural disasters in the world, being especially vulnerable to typhoons. Each year about 10 typhoons hit the South China Sea. Piracy is also prevalent. The threats require that coastal countries cooperate in environmental protection, resource utilization and conservation, disaster prevention and mitigation, and the fight against crime. So far, the coastal countries bordering the South China Sea have made an initial attempt to work on maritime cooperation.

First, the consensus and norms concerning cooperation among South China Sea coastal states. The South China Sea dispute has been escalating since the 1990s. In order to properly control conflicts, maintain regional peace and stability, and create good conditions for direct negotiations between the parties, China and ASEAN countries signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (hereinafter the Declaration)in November 2002. With regards to cooperation in the South China Sea, Article 6 of the Declaration clearly states: “Pending a comprehensive settlement of the disputes, the Parties concerned may explore or undertake cooperative activities. These may include the following: a. marine environmental protection; b. marine scientific research; c. safety of navigation and communication at sea; d. search and rescue operations; and e. combating transnational crime, including but not limited to trafficking in illicit drugs, piracy and armed robbery at sea, and illegal traffic in arms.” This suggests that China and ASEAN countries all agree on the importance of cooperating in the South China Sea in order to maintain regional peace and stability and create a good atmosphere to settle disputes. Although the Declaration is not legally binding, it serves as a political commitment made by countries in the region, and it should be fulfilled in good faith in order to effectively promote relevant cooperation.

Second, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia. In the South China Sea and especially in the Strait of Malacca, piracy and armed robbery against ships and other criminal activities were once rampant. To work together and combat crime at sea, China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, the Philippines, Brunei, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and other countries negotiated and concluded the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia in 2004. This was the first regional government-to-government agreement to promote cooperation in fighting piracy and armed robbery in Asia, and it represents a consensus reached by countries regarding the principles of combating crime at sea. By the end of 2013, the United Kingdom, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Australia and other countries outside the region had entered into the agreement. An information-sharing center was established under the agreement – to which the United States has officially become an observer– and it fulfills the duties of the convention’s secretariat. It regularly publishes reports on the state of piracy and armed robbery against ships in Asia. In addition, it informs member countries and relevant shipping organizations of related emergency cases, contributing significantly to maritime security in the region.

Third, workshop on Managing Potential Conflicts in the South China Sea. To further the dialogue and cooperation among the South China Sea countries and create a stable atmosphere in the region, the Workshop on Managing Potential Conflicts in the South China Sea has been held in Indonesia each year since 1990. China and ASEAN members have consistently sent individual participants to the workshop. This workshop includes extensive discussions on biodiversity research, the establishment of a marine database, tide and sea-level change studies, detection and training of the marine ecosystem, southeast Asia’s marine education and communication networks, as well as other issues. The workshop has made positive progress and helped launch several projects.

For historical reasons and because there are so many countries in the South China Sea, relevant states in the region are entangled in complicated disputes over territory, maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea. These disputes are mainly in the waters around the Nansha Islands (or Spratly Islands). As such, relevant countries are all intent on effectively managing and protecting the area. Concerned countries have worked hard to reach a consensus on some principles, but the cooperation still faces obstructions that must be overcome. The involved parties still need to follow the Convention and relevant international law to expand cooperation, enhance mutual trust, control conflicts and differences, and jointly safeguard the environment. If they do this, they can help maintain peace and security in the South China Sea region, bringing benefits to all people.


III. Cooperation between China and Other South China Sea States


As a member of the Convention and a signatory to the Declaration, China has never felt satisfied with verbal promises. Instead, it has consistently worked to fulfill the obligations stipulated in the Convention, implement the consensus outlined in the Declaration, and strive towards win-win cooperation. To achieve breakthroughs in cooperation that benefit all parties, China seeks active
communication, coordination, negotiations and consultations with other parties in the region.

Sino-Vietnamese cooperation

China and Vietnam are neighbors linked by sea that are engaged in a dispute in the South China Sea. With years of hard work, the two sides have made ​​significant progress and have even achieved some major breakthroughs. In October 2011, China and Vietnam signed the Agreement on the Basic Principles Guiding the Resolution of Maritime Issues. The two sides reached the following consensus: “Maritime issues are to be addressed in a gradual manner, with easy things coming first. There will be negotiations concerning the maritime delimitation of waters outside the mouth of the Beibu Bay. Meanwhile, both sides will actively discuss the joint development of regional waters. They will also vigorously advance marine cooperation in areas that are less sensitive, including marine environmental protection, marine scientific research, maritime search and rescue, and disaster reduction and prevention. Efforts will be made to enhance mutual trust and create conditions that help solve difficult problems.”[3] Since the agreement was signed, China and Vietnam have conducted several rounds of negotiations about cooperation in the waters outside the mouth of the Beibu Bay, as well as some other areas. They are gradually narrowing their differences, continuously creating conditions for stronger cooperation.

In October 2013, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang made an official visit to Vietnam. The two sides exchanged views in an in-depth manner in order to further strengthen the Sino-Vietnamese comprehensive strategic cooperation. With regards to maritime cooperation, the two sides reached the following consensus: “Both sides agree to abide by the consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries, and to seriously implement the Agreement on the Basic Principles Guiding the Resolution of Maritime Issues. Using the border talks mechanism, the Chinese and Vietnamese governments will be able to engage in friendly consultations and negotiations, seek basic and long-term solutions, and actively explore a temporary solution that does not impact either side’s respective positions. In this spirit, both sides have agreed to establish a Sino-Vietnamese maritime development joint working group, all under the framework of government-level border negotiation delegations.

Both sides agreed to strengthen existing negotiation and consult-ation mechanisms and intensify the work of the Sino-Vietnamese working group focused on sea waters near the mouth of Beibu Bay. They also agreed to strengthen the work of an expert group for marine cooperation in areas that are not particularly sensitive. Both sides have agreed to act in a gradual manner and accomplish easy things first, and as a result, substantial progress is being made regarding the waters outside the mouth of the Beibu Bay. By the end of 2013, a joint survey of this area was started and a working group for this region was formed to fulfill relevant negotiation tasks. Collaborative marine projects in low-sensitive areas will be launched as soon as possible, such as the Beibu Bay island and marine environmental management and collaboration research, and a comparative study of Holocene sedimentary evolution in the Red River Delta and the Yangtze River Delta. Efforts will also be strengthened in other areas, such as marine environment cooperation, marine scientific research, maritime search and rescue activities, disaster prevention and mitigation and maritime connectivity.

Both sides agreed to exercise tight control when handling maritime disputes and refrain from making moves that further complicate or enlarge their disputes. The two parties are also planning to make good use of a hotline between the two countries’ foreign ministries that will help manage their maritime disputes. Another hotline will be created between their respective agricultural ministries in order to promptly and properly deal with emergencies arising from fishery activities. Meanwhile, the two sides will continue to actively discuss and explore efficient measures to control disputes. They will also work to maintain overall positive Sino-Vietnamese relations and uphold peace and stability in the South China Sea.

Both sides also agreed to effectively implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and jointly safeguard the peace and stability of the South China Sea, all by advancing mutual trust and cooperation. Following the principle and spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, both sides will work together to negotiate the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

If both countries work sincerely in a pragmatic manner, Sino-Vietnamese cooperation will certainly be able to achieve new breakthroughs and help boost cooperation between the South China Sea coastal states. In turn, this will strengthen the region’s stability and prosperity.

Sino-Indonesian cooperation

In 2007, China and Indonesia signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Marine Cooperation that set the stage for the two sides to establish a maritime cooperation technical committee. Under this framework, China and Indonesia began cooperation on navigation safety, maritime security, naval exchanges, marine scientific research and environmental protection, aerospace monitoring, fisheries and other fields. In 2012, the two countries signed a new Memorandum of Understanding on Marine Cooperation and established a fund for Sino-Indonesian maritime cooperation. China invested one billion Yuan to stimulate the fund and lay the foundation for further maritime cooperation between the two countries. In 2011 both sides signed the Memorandum of Understanding on Marine Cooperation between the State Oceanic Administration of China and the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries of Indonesia, and in 2012, they signed the Arrangement on the Development of Indonesia-China Center for Ocean and Climate between the State Oceanic Administration of China and the Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries of Indonesia. The latter agreement established China’s first overseas platform for marine cooperation.

Sino-Malaysian cooperation

In 2009, China and Malaysia signed the Marine Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement, which covers a variety of issues, such as ocean policy, ocean management, marine environmental protection, marine scientific research and survey, marine disaster prevention and mitigation and marine data exchanges. The agreement played an active role in enhancing the marine scientific research of both countries and helping their joint efforts to safeguard the peace and stability of the South China Sea. Both countries’ research institutions launched a series of cooperative projects on issues such as marine forecasting model development, technology support for Malaysia’s marine disaster mechanism, maritime security, maritime search and rescue, ecological protection and scientific research.

Sino-Philippine cooperation

In 2004, China and the Philippines signed the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking. In 2005, after receiving approval from their respective governments, oil companies in China, the Philippines and Vietnam signed a Tripartite Agreement for Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking in the Agreed Area in the South China Sea. The agreement allows the three countries’ oil companies to jointly conduct a marine seismic survey on Reed Bank between 2005 and 2008. But the agreement was later halted because the Philippine media accused the joint trilateral survey of violating its national laws.

Sino-Bruneian cooperation

In 2010, China and Brunei began to explore joint development and cooperation in the fields of offshore oil and gas. In April 2013, when Brunei’s Sultan visited China, the two countries reached an important consensus on the joint development of the South China Sea, agreeing to support relevant companies from both countries in their efforts to jointly explore and extract offshore oil and gas resources. The relevant cooperation will not affect the maritime rights and interests of either country, and it is based on the principles of respect, equality and mutual benefit. During Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Brunei in October 2013, the two sides signed the Memorandum of Understanding on Maritime Cooperation, a deal between the China National Offshore Oil Corporation and the Brunei National Petroleum Company Sendirian Berhad. The deal will help establish a joint venture in oil field services and other bilateral cooperation areas. With regards to the South China Sea issue, the two sides underscored the importance of resolving disputes over territory and jurisdiction via peaceful means. In order to maintain regional peace, stability and security, and enhance mutual trust and cooperation, the two countries reiterated their commitment to the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea.

Sino-Thai cooperation

In December 2011, China and Thailand signed the Memorandum of Understanding on Marine Cooperation between the State Oceanic Administration of China and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of Thailand. In March 2012, the two sides signed the Arrangement between the State Oceanic Administration of China and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of Thailand on establishing a Sino-Thai Joint Laboratory for Climate and Marine Ecosystem. In June 2013, this joint laboratory was officially inaugurated at Thailand’s Phuket Marine Biological Center, marking a positive step in the two countries’ cooperation on marine research, ocean observation, ecological environment and biodiversity protection and disaster prevention and reduction.

Sino-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund

In November 2011, while attending the 14thSino-ASEAN Summit in Bali, Indonesia, then Premier Wen Jiabao proposed that China fund the Sino-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund, boosting cooperation on maritime scientific research and environmental protection, navigation safety and search and rescue, and the fight against transnational crimes. At present, the fund has received 3 billion Yuan from China and has played a positive role in promoting cooperation between relevant parties in the South China Sea.


IV. Problems confronting cooperation in the South China Sea


Despite island and reef disputes and overlapping claims to maritime jurisdiction, the South China Sea has remained peaceful and tranquil for many years, maintaining an environment of prosperity and stability. In recent years, due to a variety of internal and external factors, the South China Sea has experienced some problems. These problems include the following examples:

First, outside forces have played a negative role. Some outside forces, with their own regional strategic considerations, take advantage of various occasions and the media to launch political media hype, spreading a “hardline China” stance, a “China threat theory,” and concocting issues surrounding “freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.” These outside forces attempt to provoke relevant countries to publicly cause trouble for China. The outside countries also frequently hold joint military exercises in the South China Sea, escalating regional “controversy” and hindering cooperation.

Second, a small number of countries surrounding the South China Sea deliberately create hype surrounding the South China Sea issue. In pursuit of their own domestic political agendas, a small number of countries surrounding the South China Sea have intentionally created the illusion of tension in the South China Sea. Though the South China Sea is actually peaceful and stable, these countries describe the sea as being full of conflicts and tension, all in an attempt to mislead the public and bring trouble to the waters. These countries intend to take advantage of their territorial and maritime disputes with China to deflect and reduce domestic pressure. There are many countries in the region that follow different development paths and value orientations, and there is also involvement and intervention from outside countries. Because of these factors, political trust between regional countries has declined and doubts have increased. This has had a negative impact on cooperation in the South China Sea.

Third, a small number of countries have one-sided and distorted interpretations of relevant provisions in the Convention. Island and reef disputes and overlapping claims to maritime jurisdiction are the essence of the South China Sea issue. When considering these factors, the former is a precondition of solving the latter. In order to resolve island and reef disputes, historical facts must be fully considered and respected in accordance with international law related to territorial acquisition. Even if maritime jurisdiction issues are handled, these factors still require the consideration of historical facts and all relevant laws of the sea, rather than simply examining the Convention by itself. Motivated by self-interest, a small number of countries excessively emphasize the Convention as the only treaty document that can be used to resolve their territorial and maritime disputes. Such an approach does not respect history and the modern realities of the region, nor does it reflect the spirit and proper implementation of international law. This approach will not help resolve disputes, but will instead obstruct pragmatic cooperation between countries.

Fourth, there is a lack of effective cooperation mechanisms. Although cooperation in the South China Sea has made ​​considerable progress, it still faces difficulties if it wants to reach wider and deeper. There is a shortage of coordination between countries in the region. A key reason for the lack of cooperation is that the region has not yet established an effective cooperation mechanism. As such, examples of bilateral cooperation have not helped expand multilateral cooperation.


V. Ways to Promote Cooperation in the South China Sea


The South China Sea is the most important semi-enclosed sea in the entire Asia Pacific region. Like the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Black Sea and other important enclosed or semi-enclosed seas, the South China Sea is capable of having a unified cooperation mechanism formed by the coastal states. In such a mechanism, regional coastal states will strengthen the management and protection of the South China Sea through practical cooperation, truly making it a sea of “peace, cooperation and friendship.” In accordance with the Declaration, disputes will be settled through bilateral talks and negotiations, while cooperation will be conducted both bilaterally and multilaterally, paving the way to settle disputes.

The South China Sea issue contains four primary components. First, it involves fields that are not particularly sensitive, such as marine environmental protection, scientific research, disaster prevention and reduction, the fight against maritime crime, maritime rescue and maritime navigation safety. Second, it involves resources, including the development, utilization and protection of fisheries, oil and gas, seabed minerals, and tourism resources. Third, it touches on overlapping claims to maritime jurisdiction. Finally, it involves the Nansha Islands territorial disputes. To varying degrees, the four items have been the subject of bilateral cooperation and consultations, but the outcome has not yet been satisfactory. Countries all agree on promoting cooperation and strengthening communication, but there is no sustainable or effective mechanism to achieve the agreed goals. As a result, on the precondition that territorial claims and maritime jurisdiction disputes be addressed in a bilateral manner, the stakeholders should look for solutions, promote cooperation in fields that are not very sensitive and intensify their efforts in additional areas.

First, relevant parties should build consensus, enhance political mutual trust, respect history, make reasonable assertions regarding their maritime rights and interests, and fulfill their obligations as stipulated in the Convention. This will help create a favorable political atmosphere for cooperation in the South China Sea.

Second, international law and the law of the sea should be understood and observed in a comprehensive and honest manner. Parties must realize that the Convention is not the law of the sea, let alone international law. To resolve problems concerning the South China Sea, relevant parties cannot simply rely on the Convention. A one-sided emphasis on or distortion of the Convention will only serve to complicate the problem instead of solving it.

Third, existing cooperation between countries should be earnestly implemented and continuously strengthened. This cooperation must be consolidated in order to enable further efforts.

Fourth, top-level mechanisms and coordination should be strengthened in order to advance comprehensive cooperation. On the basis of existing cooperation between relevant littoral countries, it has been proposed that a South China Sea Littoral States Cooperation Committee be established. The aim of the Committee will be to construct a comprehensive mechanism focused on cooperation between concerned countries and build a platform for advancing cooperation in the South China Sea. The Committee will be comprised of states that border the South China Sea and each country will be represented by its respective government foreign affairs branches, in addition to other authorities. The authorities will not be involved in territorial or maritime delimitation disputes, such as those concerning scientific expeditions, environmental protection, fisheries, oil and gas exploration, navigation or tourism. If necessary, sub-committees can be established. This proposed mechanism – or other existing mechanisms – can learn from each other, coordinate, coexist and complement one another. While cooperating with one another, countries will continuously adjust their specific areas of cooperation in response to changing circumstances.

Such a cooperation mechanism has both a rational legal basis as well as proper precedents. It would also play a positive role in managing problems, alleviating disputes and promoting peace and stability in the South China Sea, especially before the sea’s territorial disputes and maritime jurisdiction claims are definitively resolved. In the long run, such a cooperation mechanism would be conducive to the rational development, effective management and long-term stability of the South China Sea. If coastal countries in the region maintain mutually beneficial and pragmatic cooperation, their dedicated efforts will make the South China Sea a more stable, prosperous and orderly place.


Source: China International Studies January/February 2014 88-106