Going it alone

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 May, 2012, 12:00am

There is a clear logic behind Beijing's demand for bilateral talks with the Philippines over the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Amid the noise and heat increasingly generated by South China Sea tensions, it is sometimes forgotten that the shoal is claimed only by China and the Philippines, and is not part of the Spratlys dispute further south - a long-standing tangle that draws in other claimants.

Therefore, a call for bilateral talks is entirely rational. Similarly, the Vietnamese are seeking bilateral talks with Beijing over the Paracel Islands further west - even while Hanoi seeks a multiparty Asean-led solution to the Spratlys dispute and other South China Sea problems.

There, however, any simplicity ends. Instead, we have an intriguing range of possible outcomes in the still-unlikely event that Manila agrees to Beijing's demands to talk one to one, rather than through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

For example, would negotiations even acknowledge that Scarborough sits within the Philippines' 200-nautical-mile (370 kilometres) exclusive economic zone under the UN Law of the Sea? If so, how would this be squared with China's controversial nine-dotted line? Enclosing virtually the entire South China Sea, the line bisects the Filipinos' exclusive economic zone and includes Scarborough.

And if the two sides are struggling to convince the other of their historic and occupational claims under formal negotiations, would Beijing take the unprecedented step of agreeing to Manila's demands to take the case to the International Court of Justice?

Singapore-based international law scholar Robert Beckman recently noted that an estimated five rocks of the shoal sit above the high-tide mark so they can be legally considered islands - which would provide for 12 nautical miles of territorial waters around them. But they are not big enough to claim their own exclusive economic zone.

Describing the situation as a 'classic' dispute of territorial sovereignty, he suggests that such waters could sit within another country's exclusive economic zone. 'The fact that is it within the EEZ of the Philippines is not relevant to the sovereignty issue. Neither is the fact that the shoal is within the nine-dashed lines on China's infamous map.'

There are other complications to bilateral talks, too. China's smaller neighbours are wary of having to deal one to one with China's economic, diplomatic and military clout. Safety in numbers is preferred.

It is useful, therefore, to revisit the Paracels dispute - something closely watched in Manila. Hanoi and Beijing have put aside their historic suspicions to successfully settle their long-disputed borders on land and in the Gulf of Tonkin. The gulf deal involved a straightforward equal split of waters between Hainan Island and northern Vietnam.

Mainland scholars have seized on the fairness of that deal to insist that the region has nothing to fear from bilateral talks with China. Yet, Hanoi has been repeatedly brushed off by Beijing when it insists on Paracels talks.

Dealing one on one with Beijing remains a highly complex proposition.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent. greg.torode@scmp.com