Practical measures to avoid conflict at sea

By Zhou Bo Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/4 23:13:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The Asia-Pacific region today is the main engine of the world economy and peace and development are still the major trends in the region. Due to historic reasons, maritime territorial disputes are commonly found in the region and quite a few countries have disputes with more than one country. Therefore, it is not necessary to single out the South China Sea dispute between China and some ASEAN claimants. Currently the situation in the East China Sea and the South China Sea is by and large stable; no country wishes to aggravate disputes and there is no realistic threat of a massive conflict at sea.

How to avoid conflict at sea? We believe that:

Firstly, territorial disputes must be resolved through peaceful consultations and negotiations. China not only upholds this principle but also honors this principle in practice. Ever since its reform and opening-up, China hasn't used its increased military strength to trigger any territorial disputes or conflicts. On the contrary, China has resolved land border issues with 12 neighboring countries, accounting for 90 percent of the Chinese land border. China has also resolved maritime delimitations in the Beibu Gulf with Vietnam. On the South China Sea issue, China and ASEAN claimants all agree to resolve their disputes through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned in accordance with universally recognized principles of international laws and 1982 UN Conventions on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) without use or threat of force. Encouragingly, China and the Philippines began the first round of direct bilateral talks on the South China Sea last month; and the senior diplomats of China and ASEAN reviewed and passed the framework of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.

Secondly, military activities in close proximity that could be perceived as unfriendly or even hostile should be reduced and avoided. From time to time we see maritime and air incidents in the EEZs caused by close-in surveillance and reconnaissance by certain countries in the name of "freedom of navigation." As early as 1998, China made it clear that the PRC Law on the Exclusive Economic Zone and the Continental Shelf meant that all states shall, on the premise that they comply with international law and the laws and regulations of the PRC, enjoy the freedom of navigation in and flight over its exclusive economic zone. About 100,000 ships transit through the South China Sea each year and no countries have complained that the freedom of navigation of their merchant ships is affected. It is ludicrous to turn freedom of navigation into an issue and impose one's unilateral understanding of this concept upon others.

Thirdly, the universally recognized international rules and norms must be observed. All countries must implement 1972 Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea and member states of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium should honor the 2014 Code of Conduct for Unplanned Encounters at Sea and follow good seamanship to avoid danger. The Chinese and the US military should further enhance the "Mutual Notification Mechanism of Major Military Activities" and "Rules of Behavior for Safety of Maritime and Air Encounters" to avoid conflict and confrontation.

Finally, dialogues and exercises aiming to avoid dangerous maritime and air military activities should be encouraged. The Chinese Ministry of Defense has established direct communication links with the US, Russia, ROK and Vietnam. In 1998, China and the US established a consultation mechanism to strengthen military maritime safety. Since 2008, China and Japan have conducted many rounds of consultations on establishing a maritime and air liaison mechanism. We hope the Japanese side will demonstrate flexibility and work in the same direction with China for an early conclusion of the mechanism.

In 2011, China and Vietnam signed an agreement on basic principles guiding the settlement of maritime issues existing between the two countries. So far 22 rounds of joint patrol are conducted in the Beibu Gulf. The Chinese military has attended all maritime security cooperation exercises under the ASEAN Regional Forum and ADMM-PLUS. We stand ready to explore the possibility of setting up a China-ASEAN defense communication link. Both sides are exploring the possibility of conducting joint maritime exercises next year.

We believe that all these consultations, dialogues and cooperation have played a positive role in promoting maritime security and in avoiding maritime conflict.

This is an abstract of a speech by Zhou Bo, director for Security Cooperation of Office for International Military Cooperation, Ministry of National Defense, at the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue.

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