South China Sea safety depends on naval codes of conduct, not on America giving way or any China-US grand bargain


A long-time sceptic on US presence in the Asia-Pacific, Mark Valencia dismisses efforts by countries in the region to manage maritime safety, including adoption of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (“Naval code of conduct won’t make US-China encounters in South China Sea safer”, September 6). He concludes that any optimism about this initiative “must be tempered with reality”. Unfortunately, it is he who ignores reality.

First, he dismisses the value of the code, impugning it as “non-binding” and “only exhortative”. Yet, many Asia-Pacific multilateral security-related efforts have successfully improved situations through a combination of “soft law” political arrangements and “hard law” treaties.

Second, he alleges the code is all about the US-China relationship. But the code was proposed by Australia, modelled largely on the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea, and adopted by senior navy leaders of 21 sovereign states, including all South China Sea claimants and many non-claimants whose navies operate in those waters. To imply that the code is all about the US and China is to ignore the shared interests and substantial contributions of all states involved.

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Third, he implies that the code has become an unused maritime safety instrument. In fact, operational forces, including those of China, Japan, the US and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, have continued to conduct exercises under the code in 2016, 2017, and 2018. In 2017, our two academic institutions organised a workshop on “Enhancing Maritime Safety in the Asia-Pacific Region”, during which security practitioners from 10 states (including several Asean members, China and the US) discussed how they implement their convention obligations and Code for Unplanned Encounters commitments.

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Fourth, he ignores recent bilateral efforts among Asia-Pacific states to manage the safety of maritime interactions. These include the 2015 China-US memorandum of understanding on the “rules of behaviour for safety of air and maritime encounters” and this year’s China-Japan “maritime and aerial communication mechanism”.

Fifth, he alleges that US-China maritime interactions have been “shaken” by a series of “politically dangerous incidents”. Yet, in fact, when such incidents of concern do occur, they are brought to the attention of the other military via diplomatic channels, and discussed at the next bilateral maritime safety meeting.

For many years, Valencia has advocated that the only South China Sea solution is either the US concede its long-standing policy of maritime freedom, or some US-China grand bargain over competing visions for global affairs.

Such grandiose ideas are the ones that must be, in Valencia’s own words, “tempered by reality”. Managing risks through adherence to binding safety treaties, adoption of non-binding arrangements, and their national implementation, constitute the only realistic way to handle the challenges of international maritime safety.