UN deadline unlikely to resolve disputes over South China Sea

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 April, 2009, 12:00am

Although dotted with uninhabited islands and reefs, the South China Sea is far from quiet. With its rich reserves of natural resources and geopolitical importance, the area has attracted conflicting sovereignty claims by its surrounding countries.

Despite gestures of peace and co-operation, disputes are again flaring in the run-up to a deadline for nations to submit their maritime territorial claims to the United Nations under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea on May 13. China is now rethinking its strategy in response to the developments in this intricate and sensitive issue.

Even after the convention's introduction in 1982, a lack of a standardised measurement to define maritime territorial boundaries has prompted countries to employ the standards that best serve their interests. The result is numerous disputes involving almost all the 10 jurisdictions surrounding the sea.

The convention allows a country to extend special rights 200 nautical miles past its shores, establishing its exclusive economic zone, and so many governments consider the agreement important to sovereignty claims.

Beijing sent its largest fisheries boat, the Yuzheng 311, to the disputed Spratly Islands last month to protest against the Philippines' implementation of a law to claim part of the chain and the Scarborough Shoal. Several more ships were deployed around the area last week.

The previous month, Beijing issued a strong protest to Japan after its prime minister, Taro Aso, told his parliament the Diaoyu Islands, in the East China Sea, were in Japanese territory and protected under the US-Japanese security treaty.

The May 13 deadline to file claims is unlikely to mark an end to disputes over sovereignty; instead, the debate is expected to escalate from a regional concern to a global issue.

'[The submissions] will be objected to by other countries. This is a gesture of demonstrating a country's territorial sovereignty,' said Niu Zhongjun, an international relations professor at China Foreign Affairs University. 'When the United Nations gets involved, this will become a global issue, and other countries like the United States, and the European Union, might also step in.'

If the matter was raised on the world stage, Professor Niu said, Beijing would face greater challenges in upholding its long-standing principle of 'setting disputes aside and jointly developing' the area, an idea floated by former leader Deng Xiaoping.

'China has been careful in maintaining good relations with its neighbours. It needs their support for international issues,' he said.

'And China does not want to see this issue go global, because that means it will be dealing with a group of Asian countries. When negotiating with an individual country, China definitely has the upper hand. But China will lose out in negotiating with such a group.'

However, in the face of the intensifying competition for energy sources, many are calling on Beijing to be more assertive in protecting its maritime rights and resources. The South China Sea forms the world's second busiest shipping lane after the English Channel. It also contains large oil reserves, natural minerals and rich biodiversity.

Ju Hailong, a professor at Jinan University in Guangdong, said it was time for Beijing to rethink its principle of 'setting disputes aside' , which he said was ineffective.

'This principle has only allowed other countries to jump at the opportunity to tap the resources in the sea without jointly developing them in co-operation with others,' Professor Ju said.

However, maritime security expert Sam Bateman, with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the May 13 deadline for outer continental shelf claims would not have any actual impact on the South China Sea sovereignty claims.

'These are two different matters. Sovereignty claims are a matter of politics rather than law,' Dr Bateman said. 'To resolve the disputes, the countries involved have to sit down and negotiate.'

He said the Philippines' recent definition of its baseline generated the basis of claims for its exclusive economic zone and its extended continental shelf (up to 350 nautical miles from its shore), but the country was now claiming its extended continental shelf only in the Pacific Ocean. But Manila said it was reserving the right to claim extended continental shelf in other waters, including the South China Sea.

Dr Bateman also dismissed the claim that archipelagos in the Scarborough Shoal and the Kalayaan Islands - part of the Spratlys - fell within the Philippines' extended continental shelf as 'nonsense'.

Beijing will file its maritime territorial claims as well, but some mainland experts believe it needs to speed up and modernise its naval fleets to safeguard those claims.

'Traditionally, oceans were regarded as natural chasms, and we did not think it was necessary to defend them,' Professor Ju said.

'It was only until the 1920s and 30s that a few navy elites realised' that maritime defence was part of national defence.

Professor Niu agreed that its feeble navy at the time was one of the reasons Beijing lagged behind in claiming sovereignty over the Spratly Islands in the 1960s.

But there are signs of the Chinese navy's transformation. With the imminent 60th anniversary of its founding, commander-in-chief Wu Shengli said last week that the mainland would develop a new generation of warships and aircraft.

A parade will be staged in Qingdao on Thursday to show off the state-of-the-art military prowess. Last month, General Liang Guanglie said that the mainland would forge ahead with its plan to build a aircraft carrier.