Paracels row 'needs to be settled'

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 09 December, 2011, 12:00am

A leading foreign expert on China's legal system is urging Beijing to open bilateral talks with Hanoi over the disputed Paracel Islands.

A settlement could help ease 'dangerous' tensions in the South China Sea and promote similar deals with other claimants, he said.

Professor Jerome Cohen, director of the US-Asia Law Institute at the New York University School of Law, said yesterday he believed a new leader such as Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, who is expected to replace Premier Wen Jiabao in March 2013, could find it easier than the present leadership to deal with such issues.

'All these countries are worried now,' Cohen told an audience at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondent's Club. China had made 'a major blunder' over the South China Sea and would be looking to be reasonable.

'Everybody's got to start making some concessions and let's put the Chinese to the test,' he said, repeatedly mentioning the Paracels talks as an opening move. Do they really believe in peaceful settlement? There is a chance that they may.'

Noting Li's legal training, Cohen added: 'I think he could be persuaded. It is a lot easier for him to deal with this question than the issue of human rights in China.'

China wants territorial disputes in the South China Sea settled bilaterally, rather than the multilateral solutions demanded by smaller claimants - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

After settling complex border disputes on land and in the Tonkin Gulf with China, Vietnam has attempted to open talks over the Paracels with Beijing but has been snubbed. China said there was no dispute about its occupation of the islands. Only China and Vietnam claim the Paracels while the larger Spratlys chain to the south is claimed by all five countries. Taiwan's claims mirror that of Beijing's.

China's forceful taking of the islands from an ailing South Vietnamese regime in 1974 had left a legacy of 'tensions and resentment', Cohen said.

'The occupying power is very reluctant to recognise there is a dispute - occupation is 90 per cent of the game,' he said.

He also noted the 'inconsistency' of Japan's refusal to discuss with China its occupation of the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea while pushing for talks with Seoul over islands further north that are occupied by South Korea.

'The situation has reached a stage where countries have to be consistent with what they preach and what they practise,' Cohen said. 'You can't get away these days with a totally inconsistent posture.'

Cohen has decades of involvement with China's legal system and has extensive connections across several generations of leaders, despite being an outspoken critic of its human rights record.


Number of square kilometres of sea covered by the Paracel Islands