No illegal verdict will ever resolve South China Sea disputes
Song Zhe says any attempt to limit China’s historical claims on South China Sea islands is doomed to fail, and dialogue is needed to safeguard peace in the region
On Tuesday, the arbitral tribunal on the South China Sea delivered a verdict that wrongfully judged that no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf can be generated from islands and reefs over which China exercises sovereignty, and that China’s historic rights within the “dotted line” have no legal basis.
China is entitled to be excluded from compulsory arbitration, according to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and international law, a position taken by over 30 countries worldwide. The Aquino administration of the Philippines unilaterally initiated the arbitration against China in 2013 without negotiating with the Chinese side or obtaining its consent. The arbitration is therefore a political product instead of a legal outcome. It is not aimed at providing solutions, but creating trouble. As a result, the verdict is unlawful and invalid, with no legally binding power.
The Chinese government has made clear the firm position that we don’t participate in or accept the arbitration, nor will we recognise or execute its verdict. Any country’s attempt to use the ruling to limit China’s claims in the South China Sea is doomed to fail. What China has stated is in the interest of safeguarding the UN convention and international norms.
China has had indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and the surrounding waters since ancient times. Successive Chinese governments have exercised effective jurisdiction over this region. Yet the reality in the South China Sea is rather complex. Since the 1970s, the Philippines and some other coastal countries illegally took over certain islands and reefs that belong to China. China could have taken these islands back at the time. Yet out of the consideration of stability in the region, we have refrained from taking such a move and instead proposed the idea of “putting aside differences while seeking joint development”. China has put forward this initiative for peace and stability in the South China Sea, which is important to China, and to the region and the world as a whole.
Imagine if such peace and stability were no longer there. Fishermen from different countries working in the region for years would find it hard to continue their operations and make a living. Thousands of vessels would not sail through the region every year, and as many as 15 million barrels of oil would not find their way to East Asia like they do today.
To avoid such a scenario, we need dialogue, not an illegal arbitration imposed against one’s will. It is because of this arbitration, coupled with intervention by countries outside the region and the stubbornness of the Aquino administration, that the South China Sea, which should not have been a focus of trouble, has become tense over the past few years. This is not normal. The just-concluded arbitration is no more than a three-year farce that finally came to an end.
China is a peace-loving nation. We will continue to observe the basic norms governing international relations set by the UN Charter, and engage in negotiation with countries directly concerned to peacefully resolve disputes. We will do so in accordance with international law and on the basis of respecting historical facts. China will continue to forge friendship and partnership with our neighbours and commit to the neighbourhood policy featuring “amity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness” while promoting China-Asean relations.
That being said, we won’t tremble in the face of danger. We will not be out to provoke, but we are not afraid of provocations. No one should expect us to trade with our core interests, or swallow the bitter fruits that undermine our sovereignty, security and development interests.
The new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has expressed his willingness to engage in dialogue with China on South China Sea disputes. Having heard what he has said, we need to see what he will do. It is our hope that the Philippines will appreciate the overall picture rather than fixate on the verdict of the so-called “arbitration”. The Philippines needs to return to the negotiation table with China for the interests of the two peoples, and the peace and stability of the region.
Song Zhe is commissioner of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Hong Kong SAR