ONE of the achievements of the end of the Cold War, the Arctic Council is a high-level forum for cooperation of the eight states with sovereignty claims over territories in the Arctic: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. Created in 1996, the council evolved from the 1992 Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS), which the Finnish government advocated. Besides member states, the council recognizes several indigenous groups in the Arctic as permanent participants. Though without voting rights, they can attend meetings, contribute to discussions, and present proposals.
South China Sea (SCS) states should work together in establishing a similar multilateral arrangement: a South China Sea Stewardship Council (SCSC).
In their “Regional Cooperation in the South China Sea and the Arctic: Lessons to be Learned,” David VanderZwaag and Hai Dang Vu suggested that the Arctic Council could serve as an inspiration to SCS states for their own regional cooperation framework. They have identified several important lessons that the SCS regional framework can learn from the Arctic Council model: “the debate regarding a legally binding regional framework agreement; the potential of developing hard law agreements through soft law processes; the use of informal institutional mechanisms to facilitate regional cooperation; how to involve non-state actors in regional cooperation; the promotion of common regional interests in international fora; the potential usefulness of regional assessments and reviews; and the example of an advanced monitoring program.”
Establishing the SCS council need not start from scratch. SCS states can improve on existing multilateral frameworks of cooperation in the region. Two of which are the Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia (Cobsea), which implements the East Asian Seas Regional Seas Program, which is one of the regional seas programs of the UN Environmental Program (UNEP); the other is the Partnership in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia (Pemsea), which is jointly implemented by Global Environment Facility (GEF), UN Development Program (UNDP), and the International Marine Organization (IMO).
However, these multilateral mechanisms cover the broad geographic area of East Asia. In “Regional Cooperation in the South China Sea: Analysis of Existing Practices and Prospects,” Shih-Ming Kao, Nathaniel Pearre, and Jeremy Firestone pointed out that if these frameworks become the avenue for cooperation for SCS states, it will mean that “actors not directly involved in the South China Sea issues are potentially incorporated into the agreements.”
This can complicate the agreements related to the SCS region because the interests of non-SCS parties may conflict with those of SCS states. Thus, it is better to have a multilateral framework which only has SCS states as members but, like the Arctic Council, allows for permanent participants (such as Taiwan and indigenous communities depending on the SCS for their livelihood) and observers, such as countries that do not border the SCS.
Nonetheless, the existing frameworks are not useless. They can serve as a source of momentum for developing the SCS council. In establishing the SCS council, the SCS states can adopt the program of environmental protection undertaken through Cobsea and Pemsea, and then expand the scope of their cooperation to other issues, including maritime safety and security.
Besides mustering the political will to transcend the logic of territorial sovereignty, which compels these countries to exclude one another, another major impediment in realizing the goal of shared stewardship of the SCS is the deterioration of trust. Thus, it is crucial for SCS states to pursue confidence-building measures. In the 1990s this was achieved through track 2 diplomacy initiatives, such as the Managing Potential Conflicts in the South China Sea workshops hosted by Indonesia and funded by Canada. Track 2 diplomacy initiatives like this should be reintroduced again. Discussions must not revolve on issues of sovereignty, which are bound to be divisive; they must center on the idea of pursuing shared stewardship of the SCS.