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Forum on South China Sea

Brunei, China, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan claim all or part of the South China Sea. Recent incidents in the area have escalated tensions between claimants. Some 25% of the world’s shipping pass through the waters of the South China Sea; thus, non-littoral states also have a strong stake in preserving the freedom of navigation and use of these waters.

All claimants have stressed the importance of dialogue in dealing with the dispute. The agreement reached on the implementing guidelines to the Declaration of Conduct (DOC) in the South China Sea by ASEAN and China at the Bali meetings last July 2011 affirmed this commitment to peaceful resolution. While official government-to-government talks are necessary, Track II discussions could shed light on the complex issues involved and thus contribute to the success of these negotiations.

It is with this in mind that the Carlos P. Romulo Foundation for Peace organized a conference on the South China Sea on October 16-17, 2011, in collaboration with the Institute for South East Asian Studies (ISEAS) of Singapore. The conference was intended to provide an avenue for Track II discussions, in which non-officials (scholars, retired civil and military officials, public figures, and civil society) can engage in dialogue, discussing ideas and solutions that might not be possible in formal negotiations presently, but that could over time influence official thinking and, ultimately, policy. The conference helped clearly define the South China Sea issue in its totality, with all concerned participating and with the goal of identifying common interests. The hope was that this will help governments in conducting their dialogues with one another.

The goal of the conference was to give clarity to national positions, surface the underlying issues that animate these positions, and identify areas of common interest. All stakeholders had their respective national interests to protect and promote; determining the areas where these intersect with one another would be critical. Finding such common ground served as the catalyst for generating win-win solutions in the interim and over the long term.

The conference started with a scene setting exercise in an informal setting. Thought leaders on the subject provided views and ideas that provoked discussion and set the tone for the Plenary the following day.

The first portion of the Plenary was devoted to clarifying the issues arising from competing claims to the South China Sea as they impact individual claimants as well as those who do not have territorial claims but have interest in navigation issues.

The second portion covered the scope and the legal bases for each claimant’s position. More important, it provided the opportunity to explain the role that the South China Sea has in promoting their national interest.  Non-littoral states also had the opportunity to explain their interest in peace and stability in the region and in freedom of navigation there and seek to arrive at a common understanding of the rights and responsibilities of littoral and non-littoral states over the use of these waters. The clarification of the rights and responsibilities of both littoral and non-littoral states on such issues as freedom of navigation and use as well as over flights provided the opportunity to allay concerns regarding the exercise of these rights and responsibilities.

The third portion was intended to identify common interests from which may evolve cooperation. For littoral states, there are critical strategic and economic issues. Environmental, socio-economic and domestic political concerns are important factors. Freedom of navigation and over flight is very significant for all states – littoral and non littoral – who use these waters for the movement of commerce and people.

Participants had the opportunity to discuss ideas on how to defuse the current tension and foster cooperation that protect the interests of all concerned. Such confidence building joint or collaborative actions covered law enforcement, sustainable fishing, marine conservation, pollution abatement, maritime rescue and seismic surveys for hydrocarbon resources. A discussion of possible models for adjudication as well as cooperation (such as those in place in the North Sea) proved also to be useful.

All state-claimants are also parties to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, in which all ASEAN member-states and China agreed to settle disputes peacefully, exercise self-restraint, including refraining from occupying hitherto uninhabited territories, and undertake cooperation and other confidence-building measures. It remains a useful framework for developing norms of behavior and collaborative actions and, the recent understanding in Bali is a step forward.

Participation in the dialogue were open to knowledgeable persons from the claimants, other ASEAN members, users of the South China Sea, and relevant international organizations.