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Manage Maritime Disputes in Asia-Pacific, Maintain Regional Peace and Stability

2014-11-30 23:29:59       source:NISCSS

(Delivered on the Fifth Xiangshan Forum, November 21, 2014)

      Ladies and gentlemen,

      Dear friends,    

      Good afternoon!   

      First of all, I’d like to thank the organizers for inviting me to attend this forum. I’m pleased we have this time to exchange ideas for managing maritime disputes in the Asia-Pacific and maintaining peace in the region. Let me take this opportunity to share my views on the maritime security situation in the Asia-Pacific, particularly in the South China Sea.   

In recent years, while the overall maritime situation in the Asia-Pacific has remained stable, it has been significantly complicated by certain destabilizing and uncertain elements. The disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea have become a focus of common concern for the international community, which has only further impacted regional security. For instance, last year, the Philippines unilaterally submitted its dispute with China to international arbitration. Recently, the Japanese cabinet adopted a resolution to lift the ban on collective self-defense by amending its pacifist constitution. Such negative factors have escalated the maritime disputes in the Asia-Pacific. In addition, the dual tensions in the two seas, the East China Sea and the South China Sea, have placed even more pressure on China and have reduced its room to maneuver, negatively influencing regional peace and stability.   

      There are several forces behind the Asia-Pacific maritime disputes, including problems left over from history, geopolitical competition, and the lack of an effective mechanism for handling regional security. Together, these forces have contributed to disputes in the area, putting nations at odds with each other on certain issues and making it difficult for them to reach an effective consensus.   

      I’d like to give you a quick overview of these disputes, focusing on some notable characteristics.

      First, the disputes center on the Western Pacific Ocean, with the East China Sea, the South China Sea and other coastal waters of China at their core. Maritime disputes have cropped up in multiple areas. In Northeast Asia, there are disputes between Japan and South Korea as well as between Japan and Russia. In the South China, there are disputes between China, Vietnam, the Philippines and other relevant parties. I don’t think we can deny, however, that though there are disputes elsewhere, the main problem is in the “one ocean and two seas”—the Western Pacific Ocean, the South China Sea and the East China Sea. The contentious areas move ever closer to China’s shore, putting increasing pressure on China.   

      Second, a dispute that was once only regional has drawn global attention, and outside parties with stakes in the region have joined the actual parties concerned as stakeholders. Take the South China Sea for example—in the past, the South China Sea issue was, in general, between the parties directly concerned, namely Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, China and Chinese Taiwan. Now, we must also consider outside stakeholders, particularly the United States. U.S. involvement is an important impetus behind the escalation of the maritime disputes in the Asia-Pacific region. Since the U.S. began its rebalance toward Asia, the maritime disputes have heated up. Although the U.S. claims to have no position and to take no sides on the issues over territorial sovereignty, its behavior has been biased and has indirectly emboldened the parties concerned to take a more reckless approach to maritime disputes.   

      Third, the dispute has expanded to encompass new areas. With the interaction of claimants and non-claimants, it has broadened from sovereignty of insular features and jurisdiction over maritime zones to include geopolitical competition, freedom of navigation, resource development, close-up reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. Still, the crux of the dispute is this: no country wants to give up what they hold dear. Sovereignty over insular features involves core national interests, which no claimant is willing to compromise on or give up. Jurisdiction over maritime zones involves huge economic interests that no country is willing to lose. Sea lanes and intelligence gathering involve military security and geopolitical competition, over which stakeholders are not ready to make concessions. It is for these reasons that the maritime disputes in the Asia-Pacific region are escalating.   

      Fourth, the escalation of the disputes is closely tied to China’s rise and the U.S. rebalancing toward Asia. China’s national strength has grown, sparking changes in international geopolitics. And although the United States has repeatedly stated that its rebalancing strategy is not targeted at China, its actions belie its words. Recently the U.S. and the Philippines signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. During his visit to Japan, U.S. President Obama made a high profile claim that the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States applied to China's Diaoyu Islands. Such acts are certainly biased. Maritime issues have become unavoidable and urgent topics in the construction of a new kind of relationship between China and the United States.   

      Fifth, there are obstacles to building mechanisms for multilateral and bilateral security cooperation. Although we have made some progress toward this end, because of problems left over from history as well as difficulties with interpreting and applying the principles of international law and maritime law, we still have a lack of effective mechanisms for maintaining regional security as well as communication channels that could contribute to dispute settlement. The current mechanisms for multilateral and bilateral dialogue are not completely focused on maritime security, complicating the process.   

      I believe that, to properly handle the current security situation and the maritime disputes in the Asia-Pacific, the parties concerned must discuss the future with due respect to the past and to international law. Looking forward, Asian-Pacific countries must cooperate more and trust more. They must bolster maritime security and seek an effective mechanism for crisis management and dispute settlement. Toward these ends, I have a few suggestions.

      First, China and the U.S. should cooperate more on maritime affairs and work together to maintain maritime security in the Asia-Pacific region. Maritime affairs have become an important part of bilateral relations. In the long run, U.S.-China maritime cooperation will help resolve maritime disputes. Although the United States is not directly involved in the disputes, it has an important influence on regional affairs, and regional peace and stability is in the United States’ best interests. China and the United States should communicate more about maritime security, emphasize benign interaction in the Asia-Pacific region, strengthen trust between the two countries, and look after each other's interests and concerns. They must work together especially on naval relations. Together they can lay the foundation for a new kind of bilateral relationship.   

      Second, the disputants should fully implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and make it easier to discuss the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. China. I’d like to emphasize that ASEAN members have already agreed to fully and effectively implement the DOC. China should continue to push the relevant parties to fully implement the spirit of the DOC and expedite consultations on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea in hope of an early consensus.   

      Third, China and Japan should establish methods to avoid collisions and respond to emergencies. The dispute over the Diaoyu Islands has been a significant reason for the standoff between China and Japan in recent years. During this year’s APEC meeting, leaders from the two countries held a brief meeting and reaffirmed their principled agreements on the East China Sea, thus creating a better atmosphere for the two countries to properly handle the dispute and improve their relations. Using this as a basis, the two countries should resume their dialogue on maritime security in the East China Sea. They should establish mechanisms for maritime law enforcement, including a hotline and networking methods. They should also develop methods for avoiding collisions and dealing with emergencies and disasters at sea. These mechanisms will prevent further deterioration of the situation.   

      Fourth and finally, even before the disputes are finally resolved, the relevant countries must promote joint development and build trust through practical cooperation, thus creating the best environment for developing a final solution. I would like to emphasize that joint development is an effective provisional arrangement for alleviating maritime disputes that has been widely adopted by the international community. Since I believe that it is impossible to resolve the disputes in the Asia-Pacific region in the near future, I would suggest that joint development of oil, gas and fishing resources is our best hope to help the countries involved reduce friction and strengthen trust.