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 discrete meetings on maritime confidence-building in the Spratlys Islands Area of 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 and Vietnam 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. For instance, in 2014, tensions between Vietnam and China soared due to an incident involving an oil rig in disputed waters, and 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 territorial disputes in the South China Sea, not least the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling in favour of the Philippines against China. Other important factors include the subsequent change in the leadership and strategy in the Philippines, the concomitant Sino-Filipino rapprochement and continued developments on land and at sea in the disputed waters.
Since 2015, HD has successfully hosted six meetings and delegates have demonstrated their support by their regular and avid participation. 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 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 2017, HD continues to convene relevant disputants to dialogue in productive and meaningful ways.