Bilateral negotiations are the ultimate way to resolve the South China Sea territorial disputes between China and some Southeast Asian countries, said a recent China News Service article bylined Lu Yang. Edited excerpts follow:
China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Archipelago and its neighboring seas. But some Southeast Asian nations—Viet Nam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei—began to claim complete or part sovereignty over the Nansha Archipelago from the late 1960s and early 1970s, because international marine law underwent a revolutionary change. Besides, offshore oil and gas exploitation made the South China Sea more attractive to these nations. Some of them have even dispatched military forces to occupy islands. So began the South China Sea problem.
Seeking a bilateral solution
The South China Sea problem is bilateral between China and the four nations claiming sovereignty over the area. So a final solution must be found through bilateral consultations and negotiations between China and these countries.
It is unreasonable to label the South China Sea problem a multilateral problem among the five nations. That's because the other four countries' sovereignty claims are based on an illegitimate infringement upon China's sovereignty over the Nansha Archipelago.
The idea of seeking a multilateral solution to the problem is not justified, either. The demarcation of sea waters should be decided through bilateral consultations. Only when a third nation is involved would a trilateral negotiation become necessary.
Some of the countries involved support a multilateral solution because none of the four nations is in a position to battle one-to-one against China. They think unity is the only strategy that might bring a chance to win.
But they should realize China sticks to the principle that all countries, big or small, are equal. For instance, it has settled land border disputes with many neighboring countries, most of which are smaller than China, through bilateral and peaceful negotiations in line with this principle.
Not a China-ASEAN problem
The problem only exists between China and some of the ASEAN members, not all the 10 ASEAN members. Being a cooperative organization of Southeast Asian nations, ASEAN has no reason to become a single party regarding the South China Sea problem.
Turning the problem into one between China and the whole association will definitely damage the Sino-ASEAN relationship and ASEAN's interests. The result will be unfair to members that are not concerned.
Trying to coerce all ASEAN members to confront China is actually forcing innocent countries to endorse a few countries' illegal practices. China supports ASEAN's development and growth, and is committed to developing the China-ASEAN "strategic partnership for peace and prosperity" established in 2003. Such a partnership not only accords with the interests of all nations concerned, but also helps promote long-term regional peace, stability and development.
It is hard to imagine all ASEAN members agreeing to take collective action against China on the South China Sea problem. It is also hard to imagine China would allow such a thing to happen. Some countries even preach the idea of settling disputes of sovereignty over islands and delimitation of waters in the South China Sea within the ASEAN framework, without China's participation. This definitely will not work.
Avoiding outside interference
Some major powers outside the region, such as Japan and the United States, try to interfere in the South China Sea problem in the name of "regional peace and stability," "free navigation" or "protecting the authority of international law and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea." These countries intend to create tension in China's neighborhood by warning of the "China threat."
At the same time, they want to expand their political, economic and military presence, and even force these countries to serve their special interests by using the South China Sea problem as a vehicle. For example, the United States is attempting to use the problem as an excuse to expand its political and military presence in the Asia-Pacific region, so as to guarantee its domination in the area.
Therefore, internationalizing the South China Sea problem is a double-bladed sword for Southeast Asian nations. Inviting big powers that have nothing to do with the specific issue will only make the problem more complicated.
The South China Sea has great economic and military significance to the region and beyond. Its situation influences the political stability, economic development and state security of every nation in the region. Thus all concerned countries should take responsible attitudes while dealing with the problem.
The general situation in the region is stable currently. China, due to its political stability and economic development, is playing a constructive role. In the meantime, ASEAN continues to make progress in political, economic, social and cultural development and its position in regional and international affairs has been greatly raised.
China and ASEAN members signed the Declaration on the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea on November 4, 2002. Under this declaration, they promise to deal with territorial disputes in a peaceful manner, and not to take actions that could complicate the situation. Now China and other countries concerned are discussing ways to work together in the South China Sea in accordance with the declaration. There are enough reasons to believe the region will maintain peace and stability.
But the problem could threaten regional security if it is not solved in a proper way. If Japan and the United States want to gain long-term benefits in the region, their trying to make the regional situation messy is not a good option. Instead, they should make efforts to promote mutual trust, friendship and cooperation among countries concerned, and help them deal with the problem through peaceful talks.