In commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the DOC: Managing Differences and Building Consensus to Jointly Open Up New Prospects for Cooperation on the Governance of the South China Sea

Hong Liang
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). As the first political document signed by China and ASEAN countries on the South China Sea issue, the DOC has played an indispensable role in safeguarding peace and stability in the South China Sea and promoting relations between China and ASEAN countries.
I.The DOC: A hard-won achievement
When the South China Sea issue started to be more noticeable in China-ASEAN dialogue process back in the 1990s, several ASEAN countries initiated the idea of working with China to make regional rules of the South China Sea. China embraced the idea, expecting it to be a meaningful practice to endure peace and stability in the South China Sea and promote mutual trust and cooperation.
Upon previous exchange of draft texts and bilateral communication, the first round of informal consultation took place in March, 2000. With the joint efforts of parties, more rounds of negotiations followed, before consensus was finally reached on the historic document, the DOC. On November 4, 2002, the representative of the Chinese government, also the then deputy Foreign Minister Wang Yi signed the DOC together with the Foreign Ministers of the ten ASEAN countries at the witness of leaders in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
The DOC didn’t come easily. It tided over serious setbacks, and even stalemate. However, keeping in mind the ultimate goal of having a document that delivers to regional peace, stability and the peoples’ wellbeing, China and ASEAN countries adopted the practical, cooperative and constructive approach, and more importantly, a negotiation model featuring distinct East Asia spirit, which is seeking consensus and accommodating the comfort levels of all parties. Thanks to the concerted endeavors, the DOC was born with articles that have had profound impact since then. For instance, disputes shall be resolved peacefully by parties directly concerned through friendly consultation and negotiation. Self-restraint shall be exercised and action of inhabiting on uninhabited islands prohibited. Measures to deepen mutual trust and practical maritime cooperation are also identified. These are all crucial articles of the DOC.
II.Fruitful implementation of the DOC
Over the past two decades, the implementation of the DOC has been fruitful and meaningful in many aspects.
First, mechanism-building. The Senior Officials’ Meeting (SOM-DOC) and the Joint Working Group Meeting on the implementation of the DOC (JWG-DOC) have become the primary platforms for the discussion of the South China Sea issue between China and ASEAN countries, under which 19 SOM-DOC meetings and 36 JWG-DOC meetings were held so far. The Guidelines for the Implementation of the DOC was issued in 2011, directing maritime cooperation under the DOC framework. Regular communication under these mechanisms has enabled the parties to better understand each other’s position and reaffirmed joint commitment to safeguarding peace and stability in the South China Sea.
Second, continued dialogue and consultation. Under the guidance of the DOC spirit, the parties concerned have set up dialogue mechanisms in various forms. For instance, China has established three working groups on consultation of maritime issues with Vietnam, a bilateral consultation mechanism on the South China Sea issue with the Philippines and is exploring to establish dialogue mechanism with Malaysia and other countries. It has been China’s consistent position to properly settle disputes through dialogue and consultation between parties directly concerned, which has been proved effective, fitting in well with regional reality and carrying distinctive regional features. We will stay committed to it.
Third, safe and sound interactions at sea. The parties concerned can generally deal with relevant issues calmly in line with the DOC spirit. No new action was taken on the uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals and cays, and head-on confrontation in the maritime areas with overlapping claims has been prevented as much as possible. For 20 years, despite the flames of war worldwide, no gunshots were heard in the South China Sea, a fact that could best demonstrate the effectiveness of self-restraint laid down in the DOC.
Fourth, ever-deepening practical maritime cooperation. China and ASEAN countries have been active in exploring maritime cooperation in marine environmental protection, marine scientific research, search and rescue, maritime law enforcement, safety of navigation and military confidence-building, leading to many early harvests. The hotline communications of the senior officials among Foreign Ministries was set up, the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) was agreed to apply to the South China Sea, and the Declaration for a Decade of Coastal and Marine Environmental Protection in the South China Sea (2017-2027) was released, among other important documents. These endeavors have significantly enhanced cooperation and forged an enabling environment for disputes settling in the South China Sea.
III.Indispensable role of the DOC
As a cornerstone for peace and stability in the South China Sea, the DOC, instead of a tool serving to resolve disputes, is to foster a favorable regional environment for the settlement of disputes by parties directly concerned. The DOC spirit guides parties directly concerned to settle disputes in the South China Sea through peaceful negotiations, and China and ASEAN countries jointly champion peace and stability in the South China Sea. This is also what is called “the dual-track approach”, which was created by China and ASEAN countries and has been proved feasible and effective in the proper management of the South China Sea issue. The DOC requires the parties concerned to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability, thus preventing disputes from affecting regional peace at large. Therefore, the DOC has been, in essence, a political commitment and solemn declaration of China and ASEAN countries to jointly safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea.
The DOC has contributed significantly to the development of China-ASEAN relations. The South China Sea, as a natural bond, not only connects China and ASEAN countries geographically, but also through the Belt and Road Initiative, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road in particular. While the DOC ensures the overall stability in the South China Sea, a stable South China Sea in turn fosters favorable conditions for the expansion and upgrading of China-ASEAN relations. Now China-ASEAN relations have become the most successful and dynamic model in the Asia-Pacific region, with the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership established, the Free Trade Agreement signed, the status of being each other’s largest trading partner consolidated as well as ever-expanding two-way investment and ever-dynamic people-to-people exchanges. It’s fair to say that the DOC has been one of the important achievements in the political and security area between China and ASEAN countries.
The DOC has also delivered benefits to the international community. With the firm commitment of China and ASEAN countries in the DOC to safeguard freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, the South China Sea has been one of the freest and safest maritime areas in the world, with over 100,000 commercial vessels travelling through every year, accounting for 50 percent of the global total and one third of the world’s maritime freight. Freighters traveling through the South China Sea are proud to enjoy the lowest marine cargo insurance rate worldwide.
IV.Future of the DOC: Much more to be done
Pending the territorial issues and disputes regarding maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea, it is only natural for the implementation of the DOC to meet challenges. Despite the overall stability of the South China Sea over the past 20 years, there have also been some incidents which have fortunately been properly handled by the parties concerned. However, the incidents themselves remind us of the demanding job that needs to be done in better implementing the DOC.
The top priority is to properly manage disputes. Given the historical and legal factors involved, disputes in the South China Sea are highly complex and sensitive. They have always been sources of high attention and are easy to stir national sentiments. Therefore, it is important for the parties concerned to remain highly sensitive about relevant issues, the disputes in particular, keep them in the proper place in bilateral relations and manage them properly. It’s important to exercise restraint and refrain from taking unilateral actions on the illegally occupied islands, uninhabited islands and maritime areas with overlapping claims.
It is key for the parties concerned to build and refine bilateral mechanisms, maintain regular dialogue and take preventive measures when necessary. For those disputes that may not be resolved anytime soon, an inclusive solution that doesn’t challenge the position of the other party might be taken into consideration, for instance, the idea of joint development China proposed years ago. Win-win solutions will be found, and they will be in line with the international law and the regional reality, as long as every one remains committed to peace and stability in the South China Sea and regional development and prosperity.
It will be rewarding to deepen maritime cooperation. As people often say, it is better to take one action than to make a thousand promises. The wisdom also works well for cooperation in the South China Sea. The more cooperation, the deeper mutual trust. Besides the leading role of Foreign Ministries in implementing the DOC, the involvement of line agencies need to be encouraged. If only the diplomats do the job, cooperation will stay in a small room, and the DOC wouldn’t be implemented fully and effectively.
China and ASEAN countries could consider the setup of a cooperation mechanism among the coastal states of the South China Sea, while implementing the DOC and negotiating the Code of Conduct (COC). This is our obligation under the international law, including United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and will be conducive to our common interests. We could learn from the successful cooperation practices in other closed or semi-closed seas, and an open, inclusive and constructive approach might lead us forward.
It is critical to stay immune from external disruptions. With intense major power rivalry and more geopolitical elements in place, the international and regional landscape has evolved quickly in recent years. Some major countries outside the region attempt to flare up tensions and sow discords by taking advantage of the South China Sea issue and manipulating disputes, for the sake of their own strategic interests. History has many lessons to tell. Interference of external powers in regional affairs will bring nothing but chaos, or even disasters. We regional countries must stay sober-minded, reject external disruption and stay focused on getting our own job well done, including the sound implementation of the DOC.
V. Early Conclusion of the COC: Trend of the times
Twenty years ago, the initial idea of China and ASEAN countries was to develop a code of conduct in the South China Sea. At the end of the day, we achieved maximum consensus and agreed to have a DOC instead. However, the goal of the eventual attainment of a COC was written into the DOC. In 2013, China and ASEAN countries started the COC consultation process under the DOC framework and has made substantive progress in recent years. In 2017, agreement was reached on the framework of the COC. In 2018, the Single Draft Negotiating Text (SDNT) was born, and it was decided to have three rounds of text reading. In 2019, the first reading was completed ahead of the schedule, and the second reading followed.
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, China and ASEAN countries have maintained communication through flexible means and kept the momentum of consultation. The first in-person SOM-DOC meeting since the pandemic was held in Chongqing in June last year, when the parties agreed to resume consultation online. And the five rounds of consultation that followed brought about good progress in the second reading. The first in-person JWG-DOC meeting finally took place in Siem Reap in May this year, keeping the consultation on the steady track.
Early conclusion of the COC meets the common interests of China and ASEAN countries and is the shared expectation of the international community. China and ASEAN countries have the will and ability to finalize the COC at an early date. Looking forward, the COC, based on the DOC and a key step to implement it, will be an upgraded and expanded DOC. It will be in line with international law including UNCLOS, and guarantee the legitimate rights and interests of countries outside the region.
President Xi Jinping has put forth the Global Development Initiative and the Global Security Initiative in recent years. These two Initiatives have provided us guidance to better maintain peace and promote development in the South China Sea in the new era. Twenty years ago, China and ASEAN countries seized the historical opportunity to sign the DOC, laying a solid foundation for peace and stability in the South China Sea. Twenty years on, peace and tranquility could always prevail in the South China Sea despite occasional turbulence, an achievement that wouldn’t have been possible without the DOC or the mutual trust and cooperation it has nurtured between China and ASEAN countries.
Going forward, China and ASEAN countries will remain committed to the purposes and principles of the DOC and its articles. Guided by the DOC spirit, we will push forward the COC consultation, write a new chapter of cooperation on the governance of the South China Sea, and jointly build the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.

Hong Liang is Director-General of the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.