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.
Old topic, no action
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.
Philippines leading the way
Last week, the Philippines held a cooperation forum for diplomats and scholars from China and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Coast guards from China and the Philippines, which dispute waters between them, had signed a deal in February to work together on environmental protection, search and rescues and patrols against drug trafficking. In May, they agreed to terms for confidence-building measures that would lead to more cooperation.
“Maybe it will work out with the Philippines this time, depending on how much each side is willing to give up,” said Yun Sun, East Asia Program senior associate at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington.
“Yet given China's dominant strength, Southeast Asian countries are rightfully concerned with the potential that China can mobilize its coercive and remunerative power to force their hands,” she said.
China plays tough
Analysts point to no models of Sino-foreign cooperation in the South China Sea. A 2008 Sino-Japanese joint development agreement in the disputed East China Sea collapsed over questions about which tracts were disputed.
Since the late 1970s, Beijing has advocated joint maritime use under the principle of “shelving differences and seeking joint development,” but on the condition that “the sovereignty belongs to China,” Sun noted.
Southeast Asian countries worry today that their populations would see deals with China as concessions of sovereignty, analysts say. China, with its more advanced technology, would also take a lead in scientific research, they predict, perhaps leaving a less developed claimant with a smaller share of any discoveries.
Over the past year China has perfected a bathyscaphe for deep-sea exploration and its scientists say the country is working on an underwater observation network. Some of its reclaimed land is ready for radar systems. No other country has plumbed so extensively into the South China Sea.
“The problem is that China wouldn't bend over backwards,” said Fabrizio Bozzato, a Taiwan Strategy Research Association fellow specialized in Asian political issues. “They have the means. They have the resources. They have the technology. It would be a China-plus kind of cooperation.”
China's unilateral mid-year fishing moratoriums in the northern parts of the sea have already given other countries a sense of non-cooperation.
Distrust of Beijing runs deep among common people in Vietnam, which suffered anti-China rioting in recent years, and the Philippines, where opinion polls have consistently shown a majority with misgivings about China despite Manila's effort since mid-2016 to improve ties with Beijing. And analysts say China may fear legislators in democratic nations could scuttle any cooperation as well.
“There's still this level of distrust,” said Collin Koh, maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “And I think China will still find it very difficult to overcome those domestic sentiments within those governments no matter what it puts out.”
Joint development is “problematic” for Vietnam in particular because the Vietnamese lean against sharing resources that they believe are fully their own, Sun said. China and Vietnam agreed in 2000 to a joint fishing zone in the Gulf of Tonkin, but efforts to cooperate on oil exploration are stalled.
Southeast Asian governments may prefer a third-party enforcer, such as a United Nations agency, for any deals with China, experts say. China tends to resent third parties as foreign influence in bilateral deals.
China can win other countries’ confidence in partnerships by following an eventual maritime code of conduct to match the framework signed with 10 Southeast Asian nations in August, Yang said. It should quit barring foreign fishing vessels in disputed waters, he added, and instead preserve the marine environment, to build further trust.
Any effort to control pollution would require multi-party cooperation, he said.