Despite Agreement, Continuing Risks in South China Sea

As the Global Observatory reported in June, territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) have led to a period of diplomatic tensions, particularly between China, the Philippines, and Vietnam. On July 21st, at the end of a two-day ASEAN-China foreign ministers meeting in Bali, an agreement on a set of new guidelines for dealing with disputes in the SCS was struck. These guidelines are intended to facilitate the implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the SCS. Signed in 2002, the DOC has not yet been implemented and has so far failed as a meaningful vehicle of dispute resolution.

Key Conclusions

The agreement between China and the ASEAN states is a short-term confidence-building measure and is insufficient as a basis for lasting conflict resolution in the SCS. China is likely to continue to insist on solving the sovereignty disputes bilaterally and, given underlying military- and geo-strategic factors which further raise the stakes, the risk of accidental escalation in the SCS will persist for the time being.


It is encouraging to see the involved parties reaching a consensus agreement on this sensitive issue. Yet, as the Asia Times reported, the agreement hardly solved the dispute. The new guidelines focus on non-traditional security issues including environmental protection, marine research, fisheries, and transnational crime, but do not address hard security concerns and thus do little in the way of equipping the various countries with concrete tools to avoid and/or defuse future confrontations at sea.

Given China’s longstanding insistence on negotiating the territorial disputes in the SCS bilaterally, it came as a surprise to see progress in a multilateral negotiating forum. Yet, the new agreement can hardly be considered a breakthrough for the multilateral negotiating track. It can, however, be seen as a confidence-building exercise. Therefore, with a comprehensive agreement remaining elusive and no steps taken to provide for de-escalation of future maritime incidents in the SCS, the main risk of accidental escalation persists.

In addition to the intra-regional tensions, there are underlying military- and geo-strategic currents. Tetsuo Kotani of the Okazaki Institute in Tokyo recently discussed this issue in more detail in an article in The Diplomat. He states that China’s strategic outlook in the SCS hinges as much on energy and fisheries as it does on its nuclear submarine strategy. The SCS is a crucial staging area and safe haven for China’s fleet of nuclear submarines, which can carry China’s second generation submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). These newly-developed SLBMs can provide China with a nuclear second-strike capability. China’s naval ascendance directly affects the strategic outlook, not only of countries in the region, but also of the US, Australia, India, and Japan. This leads to a dilemma for China, argues Kotani, because “[t]he more it seeks dominance over the international waterway, the more it invites hostilities.”

The agreement by the ASEAN-China foreign ministers meeting is a sign of progress and might provide temporary relief. However, given the leaders’ inability to address the core questions of sovereignty and the complex geostrategic factors that make the situation even more difficult, a long-term solution over the SCS is still nowhere in sight. As David Kurlantczik of the Council on Foreign Relations stated: “After all, China and the ASEAN member states signed a previous code of conduct on the sea nearly a decade ago, and that hardly prevented Beijing from demanding almost the entire body of water.”