The issue of freedom of navigation in the Asia-Pacific, particularly in the South China Sea (SCS) and the East China Sea (ECS), has been a disputative one, involving narratives and counter-narratives of what constitutes a ‘code of conduct’. The popular reckoning is that if a consensual code of conduct in the Asia-Pacific and its contiguous areas is worked out, geopolitical tensions emanating from the overlapping territorial claims of at least seven sovereign countries in this region – a large portion of which involves the SCS and the ECS – will be substantially subdued.
For a long time the US has been pushing for a code of conduct in the Asia-Pacific without much success. However, on 22 April, for the first time, navies of 25 leading seafaring countries met in Qingdao, China, and agreed on a code – Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) – for regulating maritime behaviour of countries in the region. The signatory countries, among others, included China, Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia and the US, who agreed to the framework at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) 2014. In a rarity, China too agreed and promised its commitment to the principles of the CUES.
China’s consent to the decision to have a consensual draft for monitoring maritime behaviour through better communication, and hence information, should be seen as the first step towards the much desired policy readjustments for China in order to be a part of the global maritime commune that accords with a commonly recognised agenda for peaceful maritime conduct.
Why did China Agree to a Regional Maritime Code?
Over the past few years, the WPNS has repeatedly brought the issue of communications code for this region to the fore, but have been torpedoed by China. At the 2012 Kuala Lumpur WPNS summit, China was the only country to oppose the CUES. After such vigorous attempts at fending off any such agreement for a maritime code in the region, why did China, in a volte-face, agree to a regional maritime code for navigation?
The CUES is a maritime communications agreement and is expected to improve communications between ships in regions with high maritime traffic density, such as the Asia-Pacific. This is expected to directly help China as it has the most number of ships in the region. Another reason for China’s acquiescence could have been the non-binding character of the code. In other words, the CUES is a non-binding and voluntary agreement. Yet another reason why China agreed to the terms could be the fact that the CUES is not meant to have any effect on the ongoing territorial disputes in the Asia-Pacific region – something that would have convinced China about the non-meddling character of the Code.
Since the occasion also marked the 65th founding anniversary of the Chinese Navy, this could have been an effort by the People’s Liberation Army Navy to play up its naval diplomacy to the gallery. At the WPNS 2014, China also pledged to hold the ‘Sea Cooperation 2014’ in which seven foreign warships entered the naval port in Qingdao. First, the list of invited countries included three countries with which China is locked in territorial disputes, and second, China pitched for greater naval cooperation with India – a country that looks at China more in the light of a maritime threat than a competitor. While these measures reflect China’s unfeigned desire to resolve maritime issues through a shot at diplomacy by involving countries they normally view as enemies, there are serious questions as to what could these steps signal?
Is Beijing's Naval Diplomacy an Earnest Effort?
Doubts about China’s intentions towards initiating serious naval diplomacy through this agreement stem from the departure of Beijing’s words from its actions. Soon after this attempt at naval diplomacy, China engaged Vietnam in a high-tension dispute over territory. The dispute arose when China placed an oil rig near the Paracel Islands, also claimed by Vietnam. As far as China is concerned, if it seriously intends to lead up a naval diplomacy, a significant departure from its recent assertive behaviour in and around the SCS, it will have to convince all the members of the WPNS and the global community about its earnest desire for peaceful maritime business.
Beijing needs to understand that dispute and diplomacy cannot go hand-in-hand. Since it has taken the first step towards minimising undesired maritime encounters, it should also restrain its coercive policies towards maritime expansion. In the long run, a non-binding code like the CUES is likely to help China since it is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is also expected to help other countries in the region which have seen a no-holds-barred Chinese maritime behaviour, particularly since November 2013. Washington too will have a fair deal with the CUES to build strategic trust with Beijing and minimise maritime confrontations with the latter.
The CUES guidelines present Beijing with an opportunity to prove otherwise, the notion that it is always on the lookout for a casus belli.