Political will, time can resolve sea conflicts

Source:Global Times Published: 2016/7/19 17:33:01

Editor's Note:

The long-standing South China Sea dispute has been pushed to a crucial point after an arbitral tribunal in The Hague issued an award that invalids China's nine-dash line claim. China's top think tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), organized a seminar in Singapore on Monday, where scholars and experts from both China and the rest of the world had a discussion about the nature, proceedings and aftermath of the arbitration.

Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore

The South China Sea dispute is not a simple legal question. It is, in nature, a political issue. How to delineate the region has been a problem for centuries, far earlier than the enactment of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea. It is a challenging task to simply apply a modern law to address an ancient international affair, which now has evolved into a geopolitical complication.

Political consultation must be the major channel to resolve the dispute. Legal approach will only work when both disputing sides have reached an agreement on this matter.

The award of the arbitration has further complicated the situation, even posing a threat to the global landscape. For example, it has degraded Taiping Island from an "island" to a "rock," which might change the status quo of many islands in the rest of the world.

The only change the arbitration can make is that it might get everyone back to the starting point, which, however, will be on a higher level. The arbitration reflects a changeover of which sides has the upper hand. It is actually a passive response to China's actions in the South China Sea, instead of a proactive move.

This gives China the initiative to set the tone in the South China Sea. China should put more effort in offering public goods in the region, such as giving access to other countries, even the US, of its facilities in the reclaimed islands, and signing the long-stalled fishery agreements.

Fan Jishe, senior research fellow and director of the strategic studies department of the Institute for American Studies, CASS

The crux of the South China Sea dispute is that it tries to employ a tactical approach to address a strategically complicated political and diplomatic issue, which should have required years of patience and the wisdom of generations of leadership to resolve.

The South China Sea remained quiet for a long time and only in recent years have the waves become choppy. China's relationship with Southeast Asian countries have been greatly promoted by means of trade and economic cooperation.

Washington's rebalance to the region by strengthening its old alliance system indicates its emerging fear of China's rise. Besides investing a lot of resources into the Asia Pacific, the US tries to drag its allies and other ASEAN members to share its concerns and include them in a system to contain China's rise.

ASEAN should realize that maritime and border disputes should never prevail in its relationship with China. Resorting to international arbitration is an oversimplified approach to dealing with a strategic malady. China has managed to settle its borders with most of its neighbors after decades of negotiation and consultation. This experience will be successfully applied to addressing the current predicament if other claimants reach a consensus on bilateral talks.

Swaran Singh, professor at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

In the short term, probably a few weeks, the arbitration will raise new tensions, which, however, will be calmed down in an old-fashioned way. After the fuss, all parties, which are overreacting to the event, will go back to where they belong. One direct consequence of the arbitration is that it might drive claimants of the South China Sea back to the negotiating table.

Different countries have different interpretations about the award of the arbitration. The tribunal's judgment has been narrowly conceived and delivered in a framework of over-stretched interpretation of the rule of law. It is not driven by the political wisdom of seeking a resolution on the ground.

Political will matters a lot in addressing border disputes. Take India and Bangladesh. The two countries settled their maritime boundary after decades of negotiation until both sides agreed to submit it to international arbitration, which ruled on the case in 2014. It is essential to create an agreeable political atmosphere and nurture a political will which can ensure both sides are willing to resolve their dispute by seeking rule of law.

In this particular case, the arbitral tribunal lost face. Any judgment that lacks political wisdom and doesn't consider how to make it implemented will only backfire.

The award is against the fundamental principles of arbitration that both parties should be willing to file an arbitration, participate in the arbitration together and the result should be agreed to have a binding force by each side. All these things were missed in the proceedings, which technically speaking, fell flat.

Ei Sun-oh, senior fellow with the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Through and beyond the current debate over the award of the arbitration, China must note that it is time to clarify its nine-dash line in a bid to clear off misunderstandings. These misunderstandings have caused continuous concerns among Southeast Asian countries.

The tribunal has clarified the difference between historical rights and historical sovereignty in its award. For a long time, China has not distinguished between them, and that is the reason other claimants are concerned about the situation. Clarifying the nature of the nine-dash line is essential to bilateral or multilateral consultations.

ASEAN used to be a militarily-oriented organization during the Cold War. It was wise of it to change to being economically-oriented after the Cold War ended. ASEAN should stick to this trend and focus more on trade and economic growth. It shouldn't go back to the past trajectory.

Posted in: Asian Review, South China Sea Focus

blog comments powered by Disqus