Contentions about sovereignty in the South China Sea have simmered since the 1940s and the area has become a global flashpoint in recent years. Since 2015, HD has facilitated a series of discreet meetings on maritime confidence-building in the South China Sea. These meetings have convened operational experts, including those from the maritime law enforcement agencies and other relevant government agencies of China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam, and since October 2017, Indonesia, to discuss practical, operational solutions for preventing incidents and reducing tensions at sea.
HD’s involvement in the South China Sea came about as a result of the claimants acknowledging the immediate need for a parallel framework to minimise recourse to armed violence at sea whilst discussions about resolving the dispute at official fora continued. In 2014, for instance, tensions between Vietnam and China soared due to an incident involving an oil rig in disputed waters, despite the fact that both countries had signed the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties which committed them to “resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means.” Although no lives were lost, one ship was sunk. After consultations in the four capitals, HD secured a mandate and agreed to facilitate informal multilateral dialogues aimed at promoting predictability and reducing tensions in the region, beginning with the first Experts’ Meeting in Singapore, held in June 2015.
Since then, a number of factors have contributed to the increased complexity of the disputes in the South China Sea, not least the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling in favour of the Philippines against China’s continued developments on land and at sea in the disputed waters.
Since 2015, HD has successfully hosted eight Experts’ Meetings, five Maritime Law Enforcement Study Groups, a simulator-training course as well as a workshop with table-top scenarios, in all of which delegates have regularly demonstrated their support by their consistent and avid participation. Since 2018, HD has convened environmental experts from the government and the private sector in four Fisheries Management and Marine Environment Protection Workshops. HD’s role and value has been and continues to be its neutrality, access to relevant international expertise, and ability to bring together the appropriate national agencies.
The increasing use of coast guards and other maritime law enforcement agencies as proxies in the dispute, combined with a greater number of fishing vessels present in contested waters, have made encounters at sea more unpredictable and prone to incident. By facilitating working-level dialogue between the various maritime law enforcement agencies, HD is providing an informal platform where operational experts can brainstorm practical mechanisms to help promote predictability at sea. The ideas generated in HD’s meetings, including on a set of Common Operating Principles (COPs) to guide coast guard vessel behaviour at sea, have contributed to official discussions on how to promote cooperation and reduce tensions in the South China Sea.
In 2020, HD will continue to convene relevant security and environmental stakeholders to dialogue in productive and meaningful ways.