There is now hope for lasting peace in the South China Sea, also known as the West Philippine Sea.
This optimism came about after Australia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) issued a declaration discouraging aggressive acts in the South China Sea.
At a recent ASEAN-Australia Special Summit, the leaders issued the “Sydney Declaration” which affirms the parties’ commitment to maintain and promote peace, stability, maritime safety and security, freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.
A report by the Philippine News Agency (PNA) stated that Dindo Manhit, president of “think tank” Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute, had commented that the signatories acknowledged the importance of “non-militarization” of the area.
Aside from underscoring the importance of non-militarization, the declaration cited “the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may complicate the situation.”
“We reaffirm the need for states to pursue the peaceful resolutions of disputes in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and to comply with the relevant standards and recommended practices by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Maritime Organization (IMO),” the declaration.
China and other littoral countries such as Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, and the Philippines have overlapping claims in the South China Sea.
Multilaterally, China and the ASEAN bloc have agreed to proceed with negotiations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC).
The conclusion of COC is seen to result in a more binding edict as enshrined in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) which is aimed at reducing tension in the region and preventing claimant-countries from aggressively pursuing their claims.
During the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit, parties expressed support for the full and effective implementation of the DOC “in its entirety” and also looked forward to an early conclusion of an “effective COC.”
From our viewpoint, we see that through the Sydney Declaration, Australia is committed to help in pushing efforts aimed at achieving peace in the South China Sea.
It indicates that Australia is now a strong ally of the ASEAN member-countries not only in the efforts to increase regional cooperation but also to achieve lasting peace in the South China Sea, which only a few years ago was a potential flash point for World War III.
To be effective, the non-militarization provision of the Sydney Declaration should be strictly observed by China and the parties involved. When finally finished, the Code of Conduct, together with the non-militarization of the area, would bring about a situation of mutual trust and confidence among the parties.