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Making the Cues code work in the South China Sea

The Association of South-east Asian Nations and China are intensifying preventive measures in the South China Sea with the adoption of a joint statement on the application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (Cues) at the Asean-China Commemorative Summit yesterday.

The Asean-China Cues is a positive development but it does not cover non-naval maritime law enforcement vessels that are armed and carry substantive firepower. China’s powerful coast guard is a case in point. PHOTO: AP

The Asean-China Cues is a positive development but it does not cover non-naval maritime law enforcement vessels that are armed and carry substantive firepower. China’s powerful coast guard is a case in point. PHOTO: AP

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The Association of South-east Asian Nations and China are intensifying preventive measures in the South China Sea with the adoption of a joint statement on the application of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (Cues) at the Asean-China Commemorative Summit yesterday.

Originally established at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) in 2014, Cues is a non-binding guide of communication and manoeuvring among naval vessels and aircraft of WPNS countries when they operate in close proximity.

Adopting Cues in the South China Sea is a timely building block to establish peaceful norms of behaviour to avert any potential conflicts amid heightening tensions in this strategic maritime artery. Apart from Cues, a guideline has also been adopted on hotline communications among the foreign ministries of Asean countries and China in response to maritime emergencies.

The Cues statement brings on board all Asean countries, including Laos and Myanmar — which have no coastline along the South China Sea and are the only two Asean non-WPNS parties.

The more important value-add of this statement is the identification of the South China Sea as the zone of application.

This significance is not to be underestimated since following the adoption of Cues in 2014, China has not expressly confirmed if it would observe this code in the South China Sea. Until now, that is.

The risk of incidents erupting into hostile confrontations in the South China Sea — the body of water where Beijing has relentlessly taken action, including military and paramilitary moves, to assert and advance its territorial claims — is real and significant.

These incidents, be it the ramming and harassment of fishing boats, the obstruction of survey ships, stand-offs, near-collisions or collisions, have become regular occurrences with increasing frequency.

More worrying is the clear trend of militarisation in the South China Sea, marked by China’s construction of dual-purpose facilities, the deployment of military assets on massively reclaimed features, and muscle-flexing military drills involving the firing of live missiles.

Other claimant states, including Vietnam, have moved steadily to reinforce their occupied features. This vicious cycle of action-reaction, if not managed in time, only serves to up the ante and may well end up in unintended armed clashes.

Against this growing volatility, the Asean-China Cues in the South China Sea is a positive development that could help reduce miscalculations and institutionalise communication and safety measures among regional navies in the area.

This is part of various risk-reduction measures that regional countries are pursuing to ward off military confrontations.

The Cues statement, however, falls short of expectations. To begin with, it is not legally binding, leaving its observance to the discretion of the concerned parties.

A framework that does not encompass compulsory compliance, coupled with the power asymmetry between China and Asean claimant states, remains far from being a solid guarantee for good order at sea.

Furthermore, Cues does not cover non-naval maritime law enforcement vessels that are also armed and carry substantive firepower.

China’s powerful coast guard is a case in point.

Its five agencies dealing with maritime law enforcement — marine surveillance, maritime police, fishing regulation, maritime safety and anti-smuggling police — constitute a formidable and potent force in advancing Chinese maritime interests in the South China Sea.

A recent study by the Washington-based Centre for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) revealed that Chinese maritime law enforcement vessels were involved in 68 per cent of 45 major incidents identified in the South China Sea from 2010-2016.

The ongoing consolidation of these agencies and the addition of new mega coast guard vessels would immensely strengthen China’s capability in projecting its non-military power at sea.

According to the same CSIS study, China currently possesses the world’s largest coast guard fleet with an annual budget of US$1.74 billion (S$2.34 billion) over the past five years, compared with only US$100 million in Vietnam and US$200 million in the Philippines.

Outgunned and under-armed, neighbouring countries may have little choice but to turn to their naval vessels, as seen in recent interceptions by the Indonesian Navy on Chinese fishing boats off the Natuna Islands.

While Cues is also applicable to naval aircraft, its focus is mainly on encounters at sea, not in the air.

Most exchanges between China and Asean claimant states have thus far taken place at sea but aerial contacts cannot be ruled out, especially if and when China declares an air defence identification zone (Adiz) in the South China Sea.

Recent signs are ominous, including China’s test flights from a reclaimed feature in January this year, its building of new airfields and advanced radar facilities in the Spratlys, and military air patrols that would become “regular practice” from now on.

Regional countries, therefore, should push for similar preventive measures in the air domain, where the room for manoeuvring is much smaller and the risk of collisions much higher.

The Rules of Behaviour for Safety of Air-to-Air Encounters adopted by China and the United States last year could be a good reference in this respect.

Meanwhile, follow-up activities, including Cues exercises, should be undertaken to inculcate the habit of positive communication and the practice of safety measures among regional navies.

In addition, maritime law enforcement vessels should continue to be on the radar of preventive diplomacy.

All of these elements need to be factored in as part of the future Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, which aims to, among others, prevent incidents and manage incidents should they occur.

The Asean-China Cues may be a first modest step, but it generates goodwill and momentum to continue engaging China in a rules-based maritime order.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Hoang Thi Ha is fellow at the Asean Studies Centre, Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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