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Diplomacy can help resolve sea disputes

2015-04-07 19:56:19       source:China Daily

Diplomacy can help resolve sea disputes

Guests speak at a panel discussion about the building of ASEAN community during the annual conference of the Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan province,March 28, 2015. [Photo by Huang Yiming/chinadaily.com.cn]

Speaking at the opening ceremony of the 2015 Bo’ao Forum for Asia in Hainan province on March 28, President Xi Jinping reiterated that, “all of us must oppose interference in other countries’ internal affairs and reject attempts to destabilize the region out of selfish motives”. His remarks were echoed by Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who pledged that Beijing would follow the dual-track approach to solve disputes in the South China Sea.

According to the approach, agreed upon by China and most members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last November, specific disputes should be resolved through negotiations and consultations between relevant countries based on international law and respect for historical facts.

The dual-track approach, crucial for maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea and its surrounding areas, represents Beijing’s consistent maritime policy and suits most ASEAN member states which seek cooperation and development as well. Accordingly, its implementation should be the priority for all sides locked in maritime disputes.

To begin with, the approach calls for scientific definition of the South China Sea issues in order to seek resolutions and, more importantly, to prevent the situation from worsening. Over the past years, frequent outside interventions have heightened regional tensions and given rise to a complex game among the different stakeholders in the South China Sea.

Since the Beijing-proposed approach makes it perfectly clear that the South China Sea issues are essentially disputes between China and some of its neighbors over the sovereignty of some islands and maritime jurisdictions, they should be resolved through peaceful negotiations by the parties concerned.

Moreover, because ASEAN is a regional organization and not a sovereign state, it cannot be part of the negotiations with China to discuss the disputes. Yet China and ASEAN are equally obliged to maintain peace and stability in the region, because the South China Sea issues have a lot to do with ASEAN’s overall interests and ongoing economic integration.

Negotiations, which are often easier to accept and less likely to create controversies between/among disputing countries, can also serve as a major diplomatic means which the dual-track approach calls for. At their 13th Joint Working Group Meeting on the Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in Myanmar on March 30-31, China and ASEAN both expressed their sincere willingness to hold negotiations to resolve the disputes.

China has consistently pushed for peaceful negotiations to end the disputes in the South China Sea. The drawing of demarcation lines in the South China Sea, including the one between China and Vietnam in the Beibu Gulf in 2000, and that between Indonesia and Malaysia in 1969 to decide their continental shelves, are conducive to the implementation of the dual-track approach, whose ultimate goal is to maintain permanent peace and stability in the South China Sea.

Apart from negotiations, pragmatic cooperation between China and the ASEAN economies, such as the serial working group meetings on implementing the DOC, plays a constructive role in maintaining peace and rebuilding mutual trust in the region. Also, to support cooperation in maritime issues in less-sensitive fields, China established the 3-billion-yuan ($483-million) ASEAN-China Maritime Cooperation Fund in 2011.

Being a key field in which China and its maritime neighbors cooperate to enhance their mutual economic interests, the South China Sea will become a weak link in the 21st century Maritime Silk Road initiative if tensions keep rising in the region. So, even on a broader canvas, the dual-track approach will accelerate the implementation of the new Maritime Silk Road but only if the South China Sea is free of tension.

The author is president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies.