New blueprint released for resolving South China Sea claims

New blueprint released for resolving South China Sea claims


Leading experts have released a new model for managing South China Sea disputes over maritime and territorial claims in the resource-rich region that is also a vital commerce artery for the world.

The model, detailed in a report released in mid-October 2018 by a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) working group, features three proposed agreements that spell out how competing claims could be politically and legally settled. The first covers a code of conduct for the South China Sea; the second, fisheries management and environmental cooperation; and the third, cooperation on oil and gas production in the region.

The working group, which includes 27 maritime law, international relations and marine environment experts from claimant and interested countries, met three times over the past year to generate the report, which is titled, “Defusing the South China Sea Disputes: A Regional Blueprint.” Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS, chaired the working group.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the 10 nations that comprise the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), many of which stake claims to the region, have been discussing a code of conduct to address South China Sea disputes for more than two decades. In recent years, they have made progress on the code, culminating with the early August 2018 announcement by Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan that they had agreed on a draft code of conduct even though several key obstacles remain.

The code will be a welcome step toward managing the disputes, the report authors said. However, other mechanisms also need to be established to ensure stability in the region, they purport. For example, the emerging code would not be the right vehicle to negotiate the details of resource management in areas of overlapping claims to waters and the seabed. Finding mutually agreeable compromises will be challenging but possible, the report authors said, provided that all sides are committed to the endeavor.

To support establishment of a code of conduct, the report recommends that the PRC and ASEAN member states:

  • Agree to uphold the freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea as provided by universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS);
  • Commit to resolve disputes by peaceful means and manage any disagreements related to jurisdiction over water, seabed and airspace without resorting to the threat or use of force, and to exercise self-restraint and due regard to the rights of other parties in the conduct of their activities in the South China Sea.
  • Refrain from occupying, inhabiting or constructing facilities on currently uninhabited features. (Pictured: An uninhabited island is part of the Spratlys in the disputed South China Sea.)
  • Work to improve the safety of navigation, communication, and search and rescue in the South China Sea. For example, nations should begin to negotiate a code to govern protocols for communication between naval and law enforcement vessels that encounter each other at sea. Nations should also set up a program under the ASEAN-China Maritime Cooperation Fund to train regional fishers in good seamanship and regulations for preventing collisions at sea and promote equipping fishing vessels with the latest radio and identification transceivers.
  • Explore avenues for cooperation on transnational crime, encompassing but not limited to piracy and armed robbery at sea, drugs and arms smuggling, human trafficking and fisheries crime.
  • Cooperate on marine scientific research by setting up a system to grant permission for work in provisional zones and implementing other measures for joint efforts.
  • Endorse the immediate commencement of negotiations on environmental conservation and protection, fisheries management, oil and gas development, and other marine economic development efforts in the South China Sea among the affected parties.
  • Agree that in the case of a dispute over the interpretation or implementation of this agreement, either party may request the establishment of a commission of mediation, inquiry or conciliation according to procedures specified in the report.