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Asean, China introduce measures to dial down tensions in South China Sea

VIENTIANE — The Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) and China on Wednesday (Sept 7) agreed on confidence-building measures to reduce tensions in the disputed South China Sea, as both sides seek to get out of a rough patch arising from Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the maritime domain.

Asean, China introduce measures to dial down tensions in South China Sea

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang center waves as he walks in to participate in 19th ASEAN-China summit, a parallel summit in the ongoing 28th and 29th ASEAN Summits and other related summits at National Convention Center in Vientiane, Laos, Wednesday, Sept 7, 2016. Photo: AP

VIENTIANE — The Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) and China on Wednesday (Sept 7) agreed on confidence-building measures to reduce tensions in the disputed South China Sea, as both sides seek to get out of a rough patch arising from Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the maritime domain.

At a commemorative summit in Laos to mark the 25th anniversary of dialogue relations between Asean and China, both sides announced that they will set up a communications protocol for unplanned encounters in the South China Sea as well as a hotline among the foreign ministries to respond to maritime emergencies.

“We reaffirm our commitment to Cues in order to improve the operational safety of naval ships and naval aircraft in air and at sea, and ensure mutual trust among all parties,” said a joint statement by the leaders of Asean and China, referring to the protocol known as Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea. 

“We affirm that this effort contributes to our commitment to maintaining regional peace and stability, maximum safety at sea, promoting good neighbourliness and reducing risks during mutual unplanned encounters in air and at sea, and strengthening cooperation among navies.”

The Cues protocol was first agreed upon between the United States, China, eight Asean members and 11 other Pacific nations in 2014. 

While Cues is not legally binding, it spells out a standardised framework of safety procedures, basic communications and manoeuvring instructions for naval ships and aircraft to follow during unplanned encounters at sea.

Singapore, as current coordinator for Asean-China dialogue relations, had mooted the idea of expanding Cues to cover incidents in the South China Sea.

Speaking at the commemorative summit on Wednesday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the measures, agreed by both sides, are proof they can manage their differences.

“This shows that we can actually make progress on our issues," he said.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, through which more than US$5 trillion (S$6.7 trillion) in shipborne trade passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims in the sea, believed to be rich in energy deposits.

Beijing has conducted massive reclamation and construction works in the disputed waterway, sparking fears of militarisation in the region. The United States has launched several waves of patrols in the South China Sea, ostensibly to uphold freedom of navigation. The growing frequency of military operations in the area has stoked tensions, as fears over miscalculations on the ground increase.

Associate Professor Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, noted that the latest confidence-building measures have been in the works for some time.

“This is a sign of progress and that practical measures are being taken. Beijing cannot renounce its claims but this does not mean it is uninterested in preventing escalation, especially by accident and misunderstanding,” he said.

When asked if Cues would be a breakthrough in managing South China Sea tensions, Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap, a lead researcher at the Asean Studies Centre at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute said: “I wouldn’t call it a ‘breakthrough’ because the Cues in the South China Sea will not include coast guard vessels of littoral states”.

Dr Termsak pointed out that Singapore had called for the inclusion of coast guard vessels — many of which are being used by the Chinese side to block fishing boats from other claimant states — in the protocol, but this was objected to by Beijing. In addition to Cues, Asean and China have also agreed to a set of guidelines for hotline communications among senior officials of the foreign ministries of Asean member states and China to respond to maritime emergencies.

In his speech during the commemorative summit, Mr Lee said he was heartened by China’s proposals to formulate a framework on the code of conduct in the South China Sea by the first half of next year.
“Asean will work with China on its proposal to fast-track code of conduct negotiations,” he said. 

Since 2010, Asean and China have been negotiating a legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea but progress has been slow, partly because Beijing had in the past insisted that it prefers to deal with individual claimant states rather than Asean on overlapping claims.

Dr Termsak said the target of realising a framework for the code of conduct is not what Asean governments were hoping to achieve. “They (Asean governments) want to realise a legally binding code of conduct, not just a ‘framework’,” he said.

“Anyway, it is still a positive development; for at least now China is committed to achieving something in the code of conduct talks, not just talking aimlessly like in the past ...  (But) what really counts in reducing tensions is in bilateral actions between claimant states, especially now between China and the Philippines at Scarborough Shoal.”

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