Progress during the ASEAN + 3 Foreign Ministers meeting in Bali last week on the South China Sea should not be underestimated, given the strong tensions which existed beforehand between China and its neighbours on this issue. One week on, it is true that the guidelines adopted for implementing the previously agreed 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) lack specifics, timelines and enforceability. However, it is widely agreed that the political courage of States including Vietnam and Philippines during the talks, as well as the willingness of China to accept compromise during the meeting promotes hope for regional relations and is an encouraging precedent for dispute resolution within the ASEAN +3 in future.
Report & Analysis: ASEAN rises to a challenge [Japan Times, 1 August 2011]
Despite this, there are indications that tensions are once again on the rise, including more news of State exploration of disputed waters, for both scientific studies and oil and gas exploration, in the last few days.
China, on its part, announced today that it undertook a scientific survey of the southwest basin of the South China Sea around the end of July. According to the China Geological Survey (CGS), the survey was to study the evolution of tectonic activity in the South China Sea and predict natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis. Scientific surveys have caused tensions in the past between neighbouring countries, including the Philippines and Japan.
Report & Analysis: China conducts scientific survey in South China Sea [Xinhua, 3 August 2011]
In the meantime a Philippines incorporated mining company has announced plans to drill more wells and conduct two more seismic surveys for natural gas in a hotly disputed area of the South China Sea near its borders. Chinese and Vietnamese gas and oil groups are also increasing their exploration of the area while a promise by Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to upgrade his country's military to defend its claims last week has raised tensions further.
Report & Analysis: Drilling Plans Raise Stakes in Disputed Seas [WSJ, 3 August 2011]
Finally, in the latest in a series of events since ASEAN +3 last week, Japan’s annual defense paper, released yesterday, accused Beijing for the first time of "assertiveness" and said it needs to keep a closer watch on how China views the contested waters between the two countries.
Japan Sharpens Rhetoric on China, Calling It 'Assertive' for First Time [WSJ, 3 August 2011]
With these recent developments in mind, it is safe to say that the South China Sea issue is far from settled following last week’s display of diplomacy and will need to be kept on close watch if momentum towards further progress on the issue is to be maintained.