A fresh round of negotiations on the code of conduct (COC) in the South China Sea between China and ASEAN will be held in the first quarter of 2019. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has appealed to complete the negotiations before 2021.
In 2002, China and ASEAN reached the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), which is a significant document. It meant that, with no external participants, Asian countries would start to concentrate on the construction of a new security architecture.
Although the declaration has not become a binding norm over the past 10 years, its direction is correct and it has gained support from diverse sides.
After the Cold War, Asian countries, including newly independent countries, have had two tasks: exploring the path to building or rebuilding their countries, and establishing a development and security system with neighboring countries. But neither has been completed. The DOC was one of the achievements in this progress, but it has only broken the ice.
Negotiations on the COC will be tougher than expected. According to recent information, some countries will propose challenging requirements to China, while China will also insist on some principles. Progress in reaching a compromise will be intense.
However, it is clear that problem-solving methods have been modified for Asia. When there is conflict on territorial waters, these countries will suspend the row to reach a stable situation.
Some Westerners doubt whether China and ASEAN can achieve an agreement. In fact, what they are skeptical about is whether Asians are equipped with the ability to build their own long-term stability and peace.
The hardest part of negotiation is precisely how to break constraints from the historical issues and rules left by the West in the process of reconstructing order.
Almost all of the existing territorial disputes in Asia are inseparable from the Western colonial legacy. However, it seems that the conflicts can only be handled depending on certain Western rules, even if these rules may be unsuited to Asian reality and completely detached from the Asian historical framework.
As Asian countries seek their own development path, an increasing number of Asian scholars have recently realized that Asian history is not just part of Western-centered global history, but has its own development logic that cannot be explained by Western concepts.
This context presents an opportunity to solve the South China Sea issue, but difficulty lies not in rebuilding understanding of history, but in reconstructing rules.
Western-led concepts and rules need to be transformed or even rejected for Asia to tell its own stories about history, geography, ethnicity, and territory. The next step is for Asia to establish its own rules.
We now stand in a position linking the past and the future. Our task is not to merely find a more accurate description of our history. The rediscovery process can only be stable if we can extend this historical logic to the future. Therefore, the South China Sea negotiation is not only a breakthrough in history, but also the beginning of a new framework.