Clarifying South China Sea dispute

By Zhu Feng
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, June 2, 2016
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An aerial photo taken on Sept. 25, 2015 from a seaplane of Hainan Maritime Safety Administration shows the Yacheng 13-1 drilling rig during a patrol in south China Sea.(Xinhua/Zhao Yingquan)

On May 12, Xu Hong, the Foreign Ministry's director general of treaties and law, held a press conference to explain the Chinese government's position on the South China Sea arbitration initiated by the Philippines.

Xu said that compulsory arbitration is not applicable to the South China Sea dispute. First, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), compulsory procedures are applicable only to the interpretation or application of the UNCLOS. Therefore, territorial sovereignty is beyond the scope of compulsory procedures. Second, when a dispute concerns maritime delimitation, historic bays or titles, or military and law enforcement activities, the state party to the UNCLOS enjoys the right to reject any arbitration.

Currently, the South China Sea issue has already transformed from a territorial sovereignty dispute into a geopolitical focus in the Asia-Pacific region, due to some great powers' intervention.

Therefore, the issue has surpassed a dispute on sovereignty, rights and interests, and become a conflict between two historical powers. On one hand, the U.S.'s marine and aerial advantages in the western Pacific Ocean since the end of the World War II have been challenged; on the other, China wants to fulfill its aim of becoming a strong maritime country.

The final ruling of the arbitral tribunal will probably go against China, which will have a large impact on China's approach to safeguarding its rights in the South China Sea.

Firstly, China's dotted line and legality of historical rights in the South China Sea will be challenged. China has stated over and again that it has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and the adjacent waters. But the majority of the Nansha Islands have been illegally occupied by other countries for a long time.

Secondly, China's law enforcement and construction legality in the South China Sea will be seriously challenged. China's construction activities on the South China Sea islands and reefs are lawful and reasonable, and aim entirely at safeguarding its sovereignty and rights. In addition, China's construction activities will meet various civilian demands and allow China to better carry out its international obligations and responsibilities regarding ecological environment conservation, disaster prevention and mitigation, marine scientific research, as well as humanitarian aid.

Thirdly, the final ruling, whether fair or not, will be used by relevant and Western countries as an excuse to accuse China of violating international rules. The U.S. and Japan are hoping to build a military alliance system and restrain China's geo-economic influence in Southeast Asia. The final ruling will give them a trump card to push China to take a "retreating policy" on strategic and diplomatic areas and demonize China in the international community.

In response to the arbitration, China should pay attention to three aspects: diplomacy, legal principle and international public opinion.

Regarding the diplomatic aspect, China needs to unite the countries that support and understand China's policy on the South China Sea issue and express its stance to international community. China has strongly advocated settling the dispute through bilateral dialogue and consultation.

Regarding the legal aspect, China should put forward a scientific, serious and objective stance on how to apply the UNCLOS to the South China Sea issue. The UNCLOS is the authoritative law on administrate and regulate international marine rights. China has always been a steadfast supporter and advocator of the law. There is no problem with the arbitration procedure or the convention itself, but the deliberation process is flawed.

As for public opinion, most countries, institutions and their people are not familiar with the history of the South China Sea. However, in recent years, Vietnam and the Philippines have spared no effort to persuade and draw Western countries and medium to agree with their side of the issue.

China's demands in the South China Sea issue include four aspects: First, China needs to maintain and develop its marine rights and territorial sovereignty; second, China seeks to promote its marine economy; third, the "21st Century Maritime Silk Road" initiative asks for economic communication and cooperation among countries around the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, and marine interconnection among the countries need to be extended gradually; four, the South China Sea plays an important role in China's national security, which must be guaranteed strategically.

In order to reduce other countries' worries, we have to take a strategy on the South China Sea issue that features clarity and rationality. Such a strategy would not only be good for solving the disputed issue, it would also benefit China's future management of the sea. Meanwhile, the South China Sea is a crucial part of the country's overall neighboring diplomacy and security, which need to be peacefully solved for China's sustainable peace and prosperity.

The writer is a senior researcher with the Charhar Institute.

The article was translated by Lin Liyao. Its original unabridged version was published in Chinese.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors only, not necessarily those of

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