Seeking a Solution to the South China Sea Dispute
During the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in late March, Chinese President Xi Jinping, at a meeting with his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama, expressed China’s steadfast determination to safeguard its sovereignty and related rights in the South China Sea. President Xi urged the U.S. not to take sides on issues involving sovereignty and territorial disputes, and to exert a constructive role in maintaining regional peace and stability.
The U.S. government’s policies “Pivot to Asia” in 2009 and “Rebalance to the Asia-Pacific” in 2012 were attempts to join hands with the surrounding countries of the South China Sea to contain China. The U.S. even strengthened military deployment and presence in this area, intensifying local tensions.
Catering to the policy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific, Japan in recent years has adopted a series of measures, such as lifting the ban on the collective self-defense right, to restrain China. At the upcoming G7 Summit this May, it is expected that Japan will urge the summit to reach an agreement to contain China on issues of the South China Sea and the East China Sea.
Rich in petroleum and natural gas, the South China Sea is also one of the busiest seaways in the world with annual freightage valued at about US $5 trillion passing through. Supported by the U.S., countries on the rim of the South China Sea openly disputed China’s sovereignty in the South China Sea and surrounding waters. The Philippines even took the sovereignty dispute to the International Court of Justice in The Hague for judicial arbitration.
Available historical documents record that the Chinese first discovered the Nansha Islands in the Han Dynasty (202 BC-AD 220) and were the first to gain substantial knowledge about the South China Sea. With the progress of navigation technology and the invention and wide use of compasses, the navigation and activities of Chinese people in this area tended to be more frequent from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) onwards. Since then, the South China Sea islands and adjacent waters have become a wide area for Chinese people to engage in production and commercial activities, such as fishing and collecting coral. There were also countless maps, archives, documents, and logs reserved from the Ming ( 1368- 1644) and Qing ( 1644- 1911) dynasties that recorded the islands and reefs in the South China Sea .
After World War II, China resumed its exercise of sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and Xisha Islands in accordance with a series of international documents, including the Cairo Declaration and the Potsdam Proclamation.
In 1958, the government of the People’s Republic of China issued a statement once again claiming that the Dongsha, Xisha, Zhongsha, and Nansha islands and the waters extending 12 nautical miles were part of Chinese territory. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which took effect in 1994, strongly supports China’s peaceful development and utilization of the South China Sea in recent years. Since the Convention cannot judge disputes on the sea involving territorial entitlement, historic sovereignty, and military activities, the Chinese government has the right of rejecting the arbitration of the South China Sea.
A seminar to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the China-ASEAN partnership was held in Beijing on April 11. The Philippines will never resort to military force on the South China Sea issue, said Erlinda Basilio, Philippine ambassador to China.
Aries Arugay, a Philippine think tank scholar and executive director of the Institute for Strategic and Development Studies, said that the Philippines submitted the South China Sea issue for “arbitration” without extensive consultation with ASEAN or consideration of the interests of all parties, which shut the doors for dialogue with other countries. If the Philippine government chose dialogue and communication in the first place, things would look different now.
The scholar also noted that the general election was ongoing in the Philippines, and that perhaps the new president would take a different attitude to the South China Sea issue. Among the four presidential candidates in the Philippines, three said that they were willing to engage in dialogue with China on the South China Sea issue, which is a positive trend.
Not long ago, some media in Vietnam reported that a Vietnamese fishing boat was intercepted by a Chinese vessel in the “Vietnamese waters area.” A small-scale anti-Chinese demonstration broke out in Hanoi, capital of Vietnam, on March 14. However, these events did not impact the friendly atmosphere of high-level military exchanges between the two countries. When Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Vietnam last November, both nations agreed to manage maritime disputes, effectively implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), and seek to reach a consensus on the code of conduct for the South China Sea (COC) as soon as possible. Both vowed not to take action that might enlarge or complicate disputes, and to maintain SinoVietnam relations and the peace and stability of the South China Sea.
Although China and Vietnam had disputed the sea border over the Beibu Gulf for decades, the issue was successfully solved by negotiation. This shows that only bilateral treaties can satisfactority solve territory disputes.