At a recent public lecture on South China Sea issues, one got to hear about the Chinese perspective on the disputes plaguing that part of the world. The South China Sea has become a hotly contested maritime zone with several countries in Southeast Asia and the US accusing China of exerting its influence by building ‘artificial islands’ and putting military weapons on certain geographical features in the region. The apprehension is China is turning the South China Sea into a Chinese lake by asserting its sovereignty over the area. There are fears that this will hamper the huge amount of global trade that flows through the South China Sea and give Beijing a huge strategic leverage to browbeat other regional economies and international rivals.
In response to this the US, as part of its pivot to Asia, has been undertaking freedom of navigation operations near Chinese claimed islands in the South China Sea. Washington’s assertion is that these waters are international and Beijing can’t treat them otherwise. Meanwhile, the Philippines has taken the dispute to the UN Court of Arbitration established under the UN Convention on Law of Seas (UNCLOS). China, however, has rejected this arbitration process on the grounds that Beijing and Manila previously agreed to resolve disputes in the South China Sea through bilateral negotiations. It says that it had expressed this position clearly even through the Declaration of Conduct agreement with Asean.
Plus, China makes the point that the South China Sea issue wasn’t a big dispute right up to 2010 and it was only after the US decided to effect its pivot towards Asia that things started going south. In other words, China accuses the US – which it calls an external big power to the region – of goading smaller nations to up the ante against Beijing.
Like in any diplomatic dispute there are many versions of the truth as far as the South China Sea issue is concerned. And all of them could be partially right. Here I present the Chinese side of the story as explained by researchers and scholars at the above-mentioned public lecture.
First, Ye Hailin from the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, put out some historical facts. Japan had occupied almost all the islands and islets in the South China Sea during the Second World War. In 1946, the then Republic of China government sent a naval patrol supported by the US to reassert Chinese claims over all the islands in the South China Sea. Sovereignty is a key issue in the dispute to which several countries – the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan (ROC) – are parties. Plus, till 2012 there were no Chinese weapon systems in the South China Sea. It was only after the US freedom of navigation operations began in the region that China put defensive weapons such as the HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island of the South China Sea’s Paracel Islands group.
Then Dr Wu Shicun, president, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, tried to elaborate on the possible way forward. He stressed that consensus was needed over the South China Sea issue and all parties to the dispute should try to shelve their differences and jointly develop natural resources in the region. In this regard, he cited the 2005 joint development agreement between the Philippines, Vietnam and China that sought to jointly explore the disputed waters. He further stressed that the US should appreciate Chinese concerns in the South China Sea, especially in light of its historical and traditional fishing rights in these waters, and reassure Beijing that it won’t use the dispute to contain China. He added that the US should not take sides in the dispute. In fact, he said that the two obstacles that were preventing the parties to the South China Sea dispute to come together and evolve consensus were the overlapping maritime/territorial claims and the US involvement.
Lastly, Zhang Junshe, senior researcher, Naval Research Institute of Chinese PLA Navy, asserted that China wants peaceful settlement of the South China Sea dispute. He stressed that China was capable of resolving such issues as it had settled 12 of 14 land boundary disputes with neighbouring countries. He stressed that peace and stability were needed for development and that freedom of navigation was never a problem in the South China Sea. He added that it was unrealistic to expect that the dispute would be resolved overnight and questioned why the US was pushing for a quick settlement through regional allies. He also reminded the audience that China till date hadn’t sent the PLA navy to deal with issues arising out of the dispute – only Chinese coast guards and police have been involved. Lastly, he highlighted that China was ready to promote and fund cooperative activities such as maritime rescue, research and fighting maritime crime in the South China Sea.
There’s no denying the fact that China makes a strong case on the South China Sea. Of course, the Philippines, Vietnam and the US will beg to differ. But irrespective of the result of the UN Court of Arbitration, the only possible solution lies in promoting cooperation between all countries and jointly developing natural resources in the region.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.