China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation: Process, Motivation, and Prospects

China International Studies, July/August 2015 | 作者: Cai Penghong | 时间: 2015-09-25 | 责编: Wang Jiapei
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Cai Penghong [1]



The majority of ASEAN members are maritime countries, and so the ocean is the common bond for China and ASEAN. During his visit to Southeast Asia in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping shared that China hopes to “vigorously develop maritime partnership with ASEAN in a joint effort to build the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century”. This is a strategic vision based on the Chinese government’s consideration of the region’s big picture and the prospects for a community of common destiny with ASEAN countries. Deepened China-ASEAN maritime cooperation not only conforms to the common interests of China and ASEAN countries but can also help maintain regional peace and stability.



How China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Has Evolved 



Maritime cooperation between China and ASEAN started in the 1990s. So far, the process of China-ASEAN maritime cooperation can be divided into the following stages:


The first stage lasted from 1991, when the China-ASEAN dialogue relationship was established, to 2001 when the two sides completed consultation on the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. This was a stage featuring multilateral and bilateral exploration, constraint, and contact. In the early 1990s, with a view to both developing relations with ASEAN and striving to improve bilateral ties with ASEAN countries, China fully restored or established diplomatic relations with ASEAN countries. In 1997, China and ASEAN decided to establish a good neighborly partnership of mutual trust that is oriented toward the 21st century, laying the foundation for promoting maritime cooperation between the two sides.


At this stage, both sides made the first step to explore sea-related cooperation, which paved the way for future maritime cooperation. First, discussions on maritime cooperation were held through the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). According to the 1995 edition of the ASEAN Regional Forum: A Concept Paper, maritime cooperation mainly refers to non-traditional maritime security cooperation, such as the prevention of naval vessel collision, climate monitoring, maritime search and rescue, marine environmental protection, and marine scientific research. In March 1997, China and the Philippines co-hosted the ARF inter-sessional meeting on confidence-building measures in Beijing, which attracted great attention from the international community and laid the foundation for later ARF inter-sessional meetings on maritime security.



Second, the two sides agreed to settle the South China Sea issue through peaceful means. After the publication of the ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea in 1992, China responded that maritime disagreements should be resolved through peaceful negotiations. If conditions for negotiation are not ripe, related parties can shelve disputes and seek joint development.


The third aspect is negotiating territorial disputes and delimiting maritime boundaries bilaterally. China and Vietnam reached consensus on carrying out delimitation and development cooperation in some sea areas and signed the China-Vietnam Agreement on the Demarcation of Territorial Waters, Exclusive Economic Zone, and Continental Shelf in the Beibu Bay (2000) and the Agreement on Fisheries Cooperation in the Beibu Bay (2000), setting a shining example of settling maritime disputes and advancing maritime cooperation in the South China Sea.


Finally, the two sides jointly completed the UN’s Regional Program for the Prevention and Management of Marine Pollution in the East Asian Seas (1994). China, together with some participating ASEAN countries, prepared the Sustainable Development Strategy for the Seas of East Asia, and finished the maritime cooperation demonstration program.


The second stage lasted from 2002 to 2011, when the China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund was established. This was an important stage that witnessed prodigious development in China-ASEAN relations, which was upgraded from a “good-neighborly partnership of mutual trust” (1997) to “a strategic partnership for peace and prosperity” (2003). Meanwhile, the China-ASEAN free trade negotiations started and saw an early harvest in 2004. In 2010, China and ASEAN formally completed the world’s largest free trade area for developing countries.


China-ASEAN maritime cooperation was promoted in this new era. In 2002, China and ASEAN countries signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which agrees in principle to promote five kinds of cooperative activities: marine environmental protection, marine scientific research, safety of navigation and communication at sea, search and rescue operations, and combating transnational crime, including but not limited to trafficking in illicit drugs, piracy and armed robbery at sea, and illegal traffic in arms.


Although the two sides put forward programs related to maritime cooperation the following year, practice showed that China-ASEAN maritime cooperation was not promoted under the framework of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, but the framework agreement of strategic partnership signed in 2003 and its action plan (2005-2010), which included maritime cooperation in the field of “transport”, one of the 10 major cooperation fields, and progress made was as follows: 1) identified the priorities of maritime cooperation, such as ship transport, Lancang River-Mekong River international shipping, maritime safety, the formulation of a strategic plan on transport and shipping cooperation, and human resources training; 2) established the minister-level coordination management mechanism the China-ASEAN Transport Ministers’ Meeting, which put maritime cooperation onto the track of government administration; 3) promoted cooperation on maritime affairs, which guaranteed the rights and interests of crew members, navigation security, sea water cleanliness and shipping convenience by establishing the China-ASEAN Maritime Consultation Mechanism (2003); 4) developed a shipping cooperation plan. On the basis of the Joint Statement on China-ASEAN Port Development and Cooperation (2007), the two sides signed the China-ASEAN Agreement on Maritime Transport in 2008, which designed a national cooperation plan to further develop maritime transport, including port cooperation, maritime transport infrastructure building, and human resources development in terms of modern logistics technology and management, which served as an institutional guarantee for the connectivity of maritime transport policies, plans, and implementation of agreements between China and ASEAN, improved the capability of managers of maritime transport and logistics, and enhanced capacity building for maritime transport cooperation; 5) strengthened training of, and exchanges between, sea-related personnel on both sides. China provided human resources training for maritime personnel of ASEAN countries, which greatly improved the management capacity of officials in charge of maritime affairs departments.


In the same period, China and some ASEAN countries jointly promoted bilateral or trilateral maritime cooperation, and achieved positive results as follows: 1) In the wake of the Indian Ocean tsunami at the end of 2004, China participated in disaster prevention and relief activities in Indonesia and other countries. 2) From 2005-2008, China, Vietnam, and the Philippines jointly collected two-dimensional and three-dimensional earthquake data and carried out test activities in an agreement zone as large as 143,000 square kilometers. 3) China and Indonesia advanced bilateral maritime cooperation, including exchange and cooperation on marine fisheries, marine scientific research, marine environmental protection, and island protection. 4) China and Vietnam carried out bilateral maritime cooperation, including China-Vietnam sea wave and storm tide forecast cooperation and cross-border joint sea oil and gas exploration in the Beibu Bay. 5) China and Malaysia carried out marine science and technology cooperation. The two sides signed the Marine Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement in 2009, which was the first inter-governmental agreement on marine science and technology cooperation signed between China and other countries around the South China Sea. 6) China and Thailand carried out maritime cooperation. The two sides signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Maritime Cooperation Between the State Oceanic Administration of the People’s Republic of China and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Kingdom of Thailand, which further advanced marine science and technology cooperation between China and Thailand.


At this stage, significant progress was made in terms of bilateral cooperation between China and ASEAN as well as some of its member states. Since ASEAN proposed the connectivity plan in 2010, China has taken enhanced connectivity with ASEAN as an important approach to develop its ties with ASEAN countries and raise the level of economic integration between the two sides. Maritime connectivity has become a priority field and key direction in China’s maritime cooperation with ASEAN. In 2011, China established the China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund valued at RMB3 billion, pushing maritime cooperation to new heights.


The third stage, starting from 2012, continues to the present day. Under the new diplomatic concept of “making proactive plans and striving for progress”, China has been actively promoting maritime cooperation with ASEAN countries. In 2012, China proposed the establishment of a China-ASEAN maritime partnership, and issued the International Cooperation Framework for the South China Sea and Other Neighboring Sea Areas. In 2013, the country proposed the strategic plan to build the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road with Southeast Asia as its hub. In 2014, China set up the $40-billion Silk Road Fund. In 2015, it officially launched the Year of China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation.


It is worth noting that relevant documents of this period reveal that, as both sides hope to raise maritime cooperation to new heights, maritime cooperation at this stage has improved significantly: 1) The two sides have promoted maritime cooperation through deepening political mutual trust. The frequency of meetings between the leaders of China and ASEAN countries has increased, while maritime cooperation has become a major topic in the diplomacy of government officials. 2) The two sides have reiterated that, in principle, maritime cooperation should be promoted under the framework of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. It has been advocated that maritime security cooperation should be continuously enhanced, navigation freedom safeguarded, and the China-ASEAN maritime partnership developed, including properly using the China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund, and strengthening cooperation in fields such as connectivity, fisheries, marine science and technology, environmental protection, navigation security, search and rescue at sea, and maritime culture. 3) Bilateral maritime cooperation has witnessed stable development. Based on previous cooperation, China and such countries as Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Singapore have continued to sign a series of sea-related bilateral agreements or MOUs. 4) While carrying forward cooperation programs in the transport field identified previously, the two sides have expanded the scope of cooperation, increasing the number of programs supported by the China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund to at least 17.


According to the above three stages, the characteristics of China-ASEAN maritime cooperation can be summarized as follows:


First, maritime cooperation has evolved from a sub-field to a strategic pillar of the China-ASEAN partnership. For a long time, it was regarded as part of China-ASEAN transport cooperation, one of the 10 major fields of collaboration between China and ASEAN. The two sides promoted maritime cooperation as a sub-field of transport, instead of within the framework of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. This situation was not reversed until 2012, when both sides recognized the significance of building a maritime partnership from a strategic point of view. The International Cooperation Framework for the South China Sea and Other Neighboring Sea Areas  (2011-2015) launched by China focuses on maritime cooperation around the South China Sea. This plan has charted the course for the China-ASEAN maritime partnership.


Second, there has been an increasingly integrated approach to maritime cooperation. At the early stage, the partnership was fairly disjointed. Entering the new century, relevant parties still failed to focus and make concerted efforts to achieve progress. For instance, the cooperation programs identified in the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea were implemented separately three programs for each side rather than joint implementation of six programs by China and ASEAN together. This inevitably led to some negative effects, one of which was the fact that maritime cooperation could only be placed in a sub-field of transport. According to the second Plan of Action to Implement the Joint Declaration on China-ASEAN Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity (2011-2015), the two sides agreed to, based on the principles set by the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, establish mutual trust through cooperation before the disputes over territories and marine jurisdiction rights are peacefully settled and work with standard terms in accordance with international laws and norms. They also agreed to focus cooperation on non-traditional security issues and make efforts to strengthen dialogue and cooperation in areas such as maritime economy, disaster prevention and relief at sea, marine scientific research, marine environmental protection, safety of navigation and communication at sea, search and rescue at sea, humanitarian treatment of people who encounter danger at sea, and anti-transnational crime at sea, with a view to building an ocean of cooperation, harmony, and peace.


Third, multilateral and bilateral cooperation has been advanced side by side. Since the very beginning, China has consistently reached out to and communicated with ASEAN. China believes that ASEAN is an important regional organization and should play its due role. But ASEAN, in principle, should be a platform, which means that it should not take the place of sovereign states to lead the maritime cooperation operations supposed to be led by those states. For example, under the framework of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, the two sides agreed to solve disputes in the South China Sea through consultation and negotiation with relevant parties, rather than introducing ASEAN to lead the settlement of disputes over territorial sovereignty and delimitation of maritime territories. Meanwhile, the regulations of the ASEAN Charter and the practice of intra-regional state-to-state relations show that ASEAN, a regional organization established by sovereign states in Southeast Asia, has provided a platform for exchange and cooperation between member states and those outside this system. ASEAN can play an active role in promoting regional maritime cooperation, but it should by no means weaken the sovereignty of its member states. Reality shows that maritime cooperation at the bilateral level between states is rich and diverse, but this kind of bilateral cooperation does not necessarily need the approval of ASEAN.


It can be seen from the process and characteristics of China-ASEAN maritime cooperation that sea-related cooperation has both enriched the strategic partnership and deepened existing cooperation, enabling the two sides to move beyond the 10 major fields. Maritime cooperation has also played a remarkably important role in consolidating the progress of China-ASEAN political and economic relations.



What Motivates China and ASEAN to Cooperate at Sea



To explain the motivations behind China-ASEAN maritime cooperation, it is necessary to analyze recent developments from the perspective of broader international political and economic relations.


First, China’s strategic motivation for continued progress is to build a more integrated China-ASEAN community of common destiny. While analyzing maritime cooperation processes, one fact can be discerned above all else: in any period since the end of the Cold War, the development of China-ASEAN relations requires the two sides to attach importance to maritime issues from a strategic perspective, making maritime cooperation a major aspect of the overall partnership between the two sides. This was true after China and ASEAN started a dialogue, after the good-neighborly partnership of mutual trust was established and after the partnership was upgraded to a strategic partnership. It is also true in today’s new round of maritime cooperation. Though at times, due to special causes, the level of maritime cooperation was limited, both sides still include it in the framework and mechanism of comprehensive cooperation. Promoted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, maritime cooperation has become a strategic part of China-ASEAN high-level diplomacy. In addition to being an important topic for the development of overall China-ASEAN relations, it should also be an indispensible new pillar to build a more solid China-ASEAN community of common destiny.


Second, building the Asian maritime cooperation mechanism is the inherent motivation for the promotion of China-ASEAN maritime cooperation. China attaches great importance to this mechanism. President Xi has pointed out that we should “enhance the building of maritime connectivity, promote the construction of the Asian maritime cooperation mechanism, and advance cooperation in fields such as maritime economy, environmental protection, disaster management, and fisheries, making the sea a peaceful, friendly and cooperative bond among Asian countries”. ASEAN has made the connectivity of institutions its core. By establishing platforms like the ASEAN Maritime Forum, ASEAN wishes to coordinate maritime political and security relations among various parties and settle maritime disputes in Southeast Asia.


However, against the backdrop of the involvement of forces outside the region, maritime disputes in Southeast Asia tend to be more complicated. China and Southeast Asian countries should adopt approaches such as diplomatic coordination, regional cooperation, international conferences, and the conclusion of international agreements to establish Asia’s order for maritime cooperation, so as to avoid further escalation of regional maritime disputes into conflicts and confrontation. Jointly establishing corresponding cooperation mechanisms in sea-related fields is the institutional motivation for China-ASEAN maritime cooperation.


Third, strengthening functional cooperation is the pragmatic motivation for continued progress in China-ASEAN maritime cooperation. In the 1990s, cooperation programs between the two sides were relatively scattered. Most of the programs during this period were sea-related functional cooperation. Since the beginning of the new century, with the rapid growth of China’s economy, ASEAN countries have become more reliant on China economically and they need support from China in terms of maritime connectivity. ASEAN’s connectivity plan includes physical infrastructure construction, consisting of two systems: a land transport system composed of road-railway networks on islands or peninsulas and a maritime transport system composed of shipping lanes. In fact, no line is drawn between the two systems of maritime and land transport. In the two systems, islands, ports, roads, and railways are integrated and connected with each other, forming a maritime economic belt of connectivity unique to the Southeast Asian region.


ASEAN countries’ maritime economy has resulted from maritime geography and the awareness of “one sea,” which is also deeply rooted in China’s efforts to build the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. In the field of sea-related capacity, China’s and ASEAN countries’ connectivity building plans are consistent with each other. For example, the realistic need to promote new industrialization is evident in the joint construction of port industrial parks between China and some ASEAN countries, and the infrastructure building undertaken by ASEAN countries aimed to enhance connectivity among islands, and even in some development bottlenecks such as maritime energy and communication. Most of these fields involve functional cooperation. On the way to becoming key to the development agenda of both sides, cooperation in these fields is the fundamental motivation to further deepen China-ASEAN maritime cooperation.


Fourth, promoting Asia’s maritime culture is a realistic demand of the relationship. On the surface, China and ASEAN countries seem to be deliberately avoiding maritime geopolitical factors. But in fact both sides have ignored the historical and geographical impact of maritime culture on their relations. For several millennia, the maritime cultures of China and Southeast Asia have coexisted, carried out mutual learning, and prospered together. A maritime exchange system featuring peace and harmony has been established in East Asia. China and ASEAN countries oppose the colonial mentality in Western culture. Rather, they advocate the core idea of establishing maritime politics in the new century and promote maritime cooperation.



Challenges and Potential Solutions



Maritime cooperation is becoming a new highlight of China-ASEAN cooperation. The latest signs show that this momentum for cooperation is by no means a simple addition to existing programs as maritime cooperation between the two sides is no longer limited to transport. It should be an urgent task to explore broader realms. In this context, it is necessary to pay attention to several challenges.


First, the “trust deficit” is noteworthy. According to current trends, relations between the two sides involve maritime political factors, including sensitive issues such as territorial disputes and the intervention of powers outside the region. These pose political and even military challenges to maritime cooperation between China and ASEAN countries. For example, the Philippines has decided to introduce U.S. and Japanese military forces to respond to the perceived “maritime security threat” from China. Actions of countries like the Philippines have led to the emergence of a trust deficit between China and some ASEAN countries, which brings unnecessary political challenges to China-ASEAN maritime cooperation.


Second, there is also the problem of determining the level of cooperation. Since 2012, when it proposed to establish a formal maritime partnership with ASEAN, China has consistently put forward a series of preferential programs, fully demonstrating how serious the country is about its efforts to promote maritime cooperation. Leaders of ASEAN countries appreciate the sincerity and friendship of the Chinese side. However, that has not been enough to break through institutional limits. In reality, operations still depend on the transport field. Although new cooperation projects keep on emerging, they have to be arranged in a scattered way. This is the result of the structural obstacles hindering efforts to deepen maritime cooperation. Without a timely assessment and remediation, China-ASEAN maritime cooperation is likely to be fragmented.


Third is the problem of unilateral actions. It must be admitted that cooperative actions should be actions featuring joint promotion, exploration, and management. They are not supposed to include unilateral actions, in which only one party undertakes a project or two parties undertake one project separately. This having been said, China-ASEAN maritime cooperation has witnessed some unilateral actions. Sometimes there have even been situations where only one side is active and the other appears passive. This is not conducive to further promoting maritime cooperation.


At present, the overall momentum of China-ASEAN maritime cooperation is strong. In the context of more mature and stable relations, advancing maritime cooperation is conducive to a win-win relationship. China and ASEAN countries need to seriously address the aforementioned challenges to attain further progress.


First, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative should be regarded as a new driving force for China-ASEAN maritime cooperation. Southeast Asian countries were the first to receive the maritime cooperation proposal by the Chinese government. When it was proposed, besides new dynamics in the regional security environment, relations between China and some related ASEAN countries were faced with serious difficulties because of the South China Sea issue. While carrying forward the Silk Road spirit of peace, cooperation, and mutual benefit, the Maritime Silk Road initiative would not like to see the South China Sea issue affecting overall friendly cooperation between China and ASEAN.


Second, maritime cooperation should be an important new area of comprehensive cooperation between China and ASEAN. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has stressed that maritime cooperation should be an important part of the China-ASEAN 2+7 Cooperation Framework, expressing the need to raise the level of China-ASEAN maritime cooperation. According to the current timetable, the second action plan of China-ASEAN strategic cooperation is going to expire soon. Maritime cooperation should be enshrined in the action plan for the next five years (2016-2020) as a major area of cooperation between the two sides, thus opening up new opportunities for the growth of the China-ASEAN comprehensive strategic partnership.


Third, maritime cooperation calls on both sides to abandon unilateral actions and align their operations. Maritime cooperation consists of joint actions in sea-related fields. Therefore, both sides should make efforts to strengthen policy coordination and strive to enhance program cooperation. Efforts should be made in the following areas: 1) coordinating development strategies. China’s 21st Century Maritime Silk Road can be coordinated with ASEAN’s development blueprint; 2) integrating programs, with a focus on maritime economy, connectivity at sea, maritime environmental protection and scientific research, search and rescue at sea, fisheries, anti-piracy cooperation, etc; 3) aligning marine industries. The China-ASEAN Free Trade Area version 2.0 aims to deepen mutually beneficial economic relations and foster interdependence across the board. The capacity of some ASEAN countries with relatively backward infrastructure needs to be enhanced through industrial promotion and capacity building. It is suggested that China join hands with one or some ASEAN countries to set an example of maritime infrastructure cooperation.






China is ready to work with ASEAN countries to develop a maritime partnership, build the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, and forge a community of common destiny featuring shared interests, security, and prosperity. While enriching China’s neighborhood diplomatic strategy, deepening China-ASEAN maritime cooperation can also spearhead the development of China’s relations with ASEAN countries. To this end, China has put forward a series of practical measures, including offering $40 billion to establish the Silk Road Fund, initiating the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, providing $10 billion in preferential loans for ASEAN countries, launching the fundraising of $3 billion for the China-ASEAN Investment Cooperation Fund II, and establishing a $10-billion China-ASEAN special loan for infrastructure. These efforts have offered long-term and stable fund guarantees for connectivity between China and ASEAN, especially maritime connectivity. Strengthening China-ASEAN maritime cooperation will benefit both sides. It is also a great cause that will help realize maritime peace and stability in Asia.




Source: China International Studies, July/August 2015, pp.26-40.



[1] Cai Penghong is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Foreign Policy Studies, Shanghai Institute for International Studies.