Countries with competing claims to the South China Sea have failed to start joint resource projects with the strongest one, China, despite discussions over the past two decades, as they fear unequal results or a loss of sovereignty.
Front-line countries in Southeast Asia worry they would take a minor role compared to China or end up ceding marine resources because China is bigger and more advanced.
“Other countries are still expecting Beijing to be more of a responsible stakeholder in terms of their performance and behavior in the South China Sea,” said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan.
China in turn may suspect that domestic politics in a democratic country such as the Philippines could disrupt a deal, experts say.
The prospects of working together for oil, gas, fish, scientific research or environmental protection in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea have come and gone from discussions since the 1990s, when claimant governments held workshops on maritime cooperation. The sea is rich in fisheries as well as fossil fuels.
China and Taiwan claim nearly the whole sea. Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines call as their own, parts of the sea, extending from their coastlines. Over the past decade China has upset other countries by building artificial islands for military use and passing coast guard vessels through contested tracts of the sea.