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UPDATED: August 6, 2010 NO. 32 AUGUST 12, 2010
Legitimate Sovereignty
Historical and legal evidence proves China's indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea

DUTY ON THE SOUTH CHINA SEA: The staff of a Chinese fishery administration ship prepares before a duty sail to the South China Sea on March 10, 2009 (LIANG GANGHUA)

At the foreign ministers' meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Viet Nam on July 23, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States has a national interest in the South China Sea, hinting that Washington may interfere in the territorial disputes in the area. Her remarks caused a strong reaction from China.

Although China has worked hard to maintain regional peace during the majority of the last two decades, its efforts were not appreciated by some neighboring countries. China's consideration for peace caused unexpected troubles: its sovereignty over its sea waters, islands and islets was disputed. Some countries even tried to keep these islands and reefs occupied, or to grab more territory from China, by inviting unrelated countries to participate in the contest.

Numerous historical proofs, in the libraries and archives of many nations, have validated China's sovereignty over the South China Sea. For example, in Geography of Viet Nam, a Vietnamese textbook published in 1957, there was no mentioning of the "Hoang Sa Islands" and the "Truong Sa Islands"—China's Xisha Archipelago and Nansha Archipelago, which Westerners refer to as the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands respectively—when stating Viet Nam's territory. It was only in recent decades that Viet Nam began to strongly claim sovereignty over these areas.

Ignoring historical evidence in favor of China, claimant countries have tried to justify their claims from a legal perspective. In Viet Nam, Clinton also cited the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. What she didn't mention, though, was that the United States has never even ratified that treaty.

Can disputes over the South China Sea be solved through legal means in disregard of the historical documents validating China's sovereignty? The answer is no. Besides, China's sovereignty over the South China Sea is legally valid as well.

Zhao Lihai, a late Chinese expert on maritime law, put forward four principles proving China's sovereignty:

- the principle of discovery—China is the first country that discovered and explored the South China Sea;

- the principle of preemption—Other countries' seizing of the South China Sea islands, which have been established as part of the Chinese territory, is invalid;

- the principle of estoppel—Vietnamese textbooks, as well as Vietnamese leaders, reiterated China's sovereignty over the South China Sea decades ago; and

- the principle of intertemporal law—China's sovereignty over the South China Sea existed at least 1,000 years before the adoption of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is neither realistic nor fair to deny such history with a new law.

These four principles are more practical than today's concept of "occupation and effective control." Although it is popular, this concept is more likely to lead to confrontation.

Under the principle of "occupation and effective control," territories that have not yet been occupied or effectively controlled could be carved up by different countries. Such a principle is extremely unfair to peace-loving countries that hope to maintain territorial integrity in peaceful ways.

The author is a research fellow with the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies of the Guangxi Academy of Social Sciences

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