Experts doubt new agreement will ease East Sea tension

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As China and ASEAN inch closer to a goodwill declaration on the East Sea, experts doubt that it will ease tensions


Vietnamese fishermen in the East Sea. Experts have called a recent agreement to implement a regional declaration of goodwill a step toward resolving growing tensions in the East Sea.

Experts have called a recent agreement to implement a regional declaration of goodwill a step towards resolving growing tensions in the East Sea also known as South China Sea.

In 2002, China and members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) created the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).

The document vocalized an international commitment to peace and cooperation and suggested that all signatories would eventually commit to rescuing distressed seamen, conducting information exchanges and ensuring one another's safe navigation at sea.

Since its creation, however, a number of regional and territorial disputes have put the declaration in jeopardy and tested these commitments. China has since claimed 80 percent of the water body, sparking outrage from its regional neighbors. A number of fishermen have been kidnapped by Chinese patrols and Vietnam's state-owned oil vessels have been sabotaged inside its own territorial waters.

On Wednesday (July 20), during the 44th ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting, representatives from the region gathered in Bali, Indonesia to discuss a set of revised guidelines for implementing the aging declaration.

China and ASEAN members inked an agreement on the draft declaration.

"In this regard, we stressed the importance of maintaining peace, and stability in the South China Sea, the continued exercise of restraint by all parties concerned, and the promotion of confidence-building measures in this area," according to the joint communiqué read at the meeting.

"We look forward to intensive discussion in ASEAN on a regional Code of Conduct in South China Sea (COC)," it said.

Diplomats from all parties involve have hailed the agreement as a step in the right direction. But international experts say that the document is yet another toothless gesture.

The elusive Code of Conduct

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A COC would effectively serve as a guideline for each nation's responsibility in the East Sea ultimately, a more binding agreement than a declaration but still not as binding as a treaty.

Even that may be a long way off. The recent agreement on the implementation of the 2002 declaration did not set out a timetable for the formulation of a COC.

"While the draft guidelines reaffirm ASEAN and China's commitment to peace and stability in the South China Sea, and a peaceful resolution of the dispute, it is highly disappointing that the document lacks specifics," said Ian Storey, a security analyst at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore.

He said the guidelines call on the parties to undertake cooperative activities and projects, including confidence-building measures, but do not identify "the nature and scope" of these measures.

"The guidelines do not set out a timetable for the realization of a formal [COC]," he said, adding that such a timeline would help reduce tensions in the East Sea.

The draft guidelines come ahead of the region's biggest security forum on Saturday which will include a delegation from the US.

Vietnamese Deputy Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Pham Gia Khiem applauded ASEAN's efforts to complete the draft guidance on the implementation of the DOC as well as resume ASEAN-China senior meetings on the issue.

Lacking specifics

Outside experts, however, are eager for more concrete guidelines.

"It is a significant first step now let's focus on the specifics," Mark Valencia, a maritime analyst in Hawaii and a leading expert on the dispute, told Thanh Nien Weekly. "There are too many loose ends including disputes among ASEAN member claimants themselves as well as between China and the US over freedom of navigation which influences these disputes."

Valencia said Vietnam could continue to negotiate bilaterally with other ASEAN claimants and China.

"The two processes are not necessarily mutually exclusive and a breakthrough in one will influence the others," he said.

Iskander Rehman, International Fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in India, said the guidelines do not provide a solid framework which directly addresses the disputes in the areas believed to be rich in oil and natural gas, and remain "more vague than concrete."

He went on further to say that a regional COC should not be viewed as a panacea and expected a more binding document on the issue.

"Even if China and ASEAN did agree on a [COC], which is unlikely, this would constitute a symbolic step toward a less confrontational maritime theater in Southeast Asia."

"What would be most needed, ideally, is an international treaty. But China would never sign off on such a constraint on its future actions," he said.

A preliminary copy of the recent Draft Guidelines for the Implementation of the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC)

1. The implementation of the DOC should be carried out in a step-by-step approach in line with the provisions of the DOC.

2. The Parties to the DOC will continue to promote dialogue and consultations in accordance with the spirit of the DOC.

3. The implementation of activities or projects as provided for in the DOC should be clearly identified.

4. The participation in the activities or projects should be carried out on a voluntary basis.

5. Initial activities to be undertaken under the ambit of the DOC should be confidence-building measures.

6. The decision to implement concrete measures or activities of the DOC should be based on consensus among parties concerned, and lead to the eventual realization of a Code of Conduct.

7. In the implementation of the agreed projects under the DOC, the services of the Experts and Eminent Persons, if deemed necessary, will be sought to provide specific inputs on the projects concerned.

8. Progress of the implementation of the agreed activities and projects under the DOC shall be reported annually to the ASEAN-China Ministerial Meeting (PMC).

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