Managing potential conflicts in the South China Sea

  • Hearns G
  • Stormont W
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1994 witnessed interesting developments in cooperation and confidence building dialogue amongst the States of the Asia Pacific region, and in the South China Sea region in particular. On 25 November 1994 in Bogor, Indonesia, the leaders of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Council's (APEC) member States committed to link their economies together through the future creation of the largest free trade zone in the world. Previously, 18 foreign ministers met in July, at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) in Bangkok, to discuss the post Cold War situation in Southeast Asia. Much of the discussion focused on the role that confidence building activities could play in facilitating transparency in the face of the increasing armaments build up in the region. One of the longest standing confidence building activities in the region are the informal meetings of the project on Managing Potential Conflicts in the South China Sea (MPC). 1 Since 1990 this project has continued to develop avenues for cooperative activities and to foster dialogue amongst the littoral States of the South China Sea region. New challenges were presented in 1995 for the MPC project. China's announcement that she would endeavour to settle disputes in the South China Sea through accepted norms of international law and the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was welcomed by Southeast Asia's leaders. In order to take advantage of this favourable climate, the MPC convened the First Meeting of the Technical Working Group on Legal Matters in the South China Sea in Jakarta, in July. The meeting represents a significant step for the project as previously it was felt a legal debate may degenerate into participants merely restating rhetorical and entrenched positions. The large, and increasing, volume of naval traffic in and around Spratly Islands coupled with the concern that misinterpretation of another's actions could lead to conflict, resulted in the signing of multiple 'code of conduct' agreements between claimants. Vietnam and the Philippines as well as China and the Philippines agreed to cooperate in this regard. During 1995 China continued to be the main source of concern for the countries of the region. Her occupation of Mischief Reef at the end of 1994 and rising tensions between the mainland and Taiwan over President Lee Teng-Hui's visit to the US in June, culminating in missile tests off Taiwan, renewed questions over China's intentions in the region.

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  • Glen S Hearns

  • William G Stormont

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