The US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland made some odd comments on the South China Sea last month. "We don't think that [the South China Sea] issue … can be resolved through a series of bilateral intersections," she said. "We don't think that cutting deals with these countries individually is going to work, let alone be the expedient way or the best way under international law to get this done."
She continued: "Bilateral diplomacy that leads to, and is supportive of, an overall multilateral deal where all of the claimants are satisfied and the arrangement that emerges is supportable under international law is fine. But an effort to divide and conquer and end up with a competitive situation among the different claimants is not going to get where we need to go."
The implications of her statement are clear: one, on the South China Sea, issues have to be resolved through multilateral means; and two, any efforts at bilateral negotiation could be interpreted as an attempt to divide and conquer.
This is really odd. It's pretty hard to find on what grounds she could draw such conclusions.
It rather seemed Nuland must have been poorly informed about the South China Sea issues.
At the core of the issue are two categories of disputes - namely, territorial disputes around certain islands, reefs or shoals of the Nansha Islands (Spratlys), and disputes related to maritime jurisdiction in some parts of the sea area.
How such disputes should be settled is always a decision for parties to the disputes. And international practice widely provides that negotiation between the parties directly concerned is always the best way and a priority choice under international law.
For example, the Charter of the United Nations stipulates that the parties to any dispute shall seek a solution through negotiation.
The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea provides that maritime delimitation shall be effected by agreements on the basis of international law.
And only if no agreement can be reached within a reasonable period of time shall the states concerned resort to other procedures. There are hardly any grounds in international law for multilateral solutions to such disputes. If any of these disputes had to be settled multilaterally, with the involvement of parties without a direct concern, it would only lead to chaos in the current international order.
The claim that seeking bilateral negotiations is a technique to divide and conquer is another preposterous remark. It is a precondition that there must be a unified position or a union to be divided.
But as far as territorial and maritime disputes are concerned, does Asean, for example, present a unified position? Is it necessary for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to form a union on South China Sea disputes? What good would such a union be in maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea if China, a major party to the disputes, was excluded?
In fact, there is an existing and much better unified position among China and Asean nations regarding the South China Sea issues, which is reflected in the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
We only need to faithfully implement that document. It states that, "the parties concerned undertake to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned".
Obviously, Nuland's statements run counter to this consensus, which right now is only defended by China and some Asean countries. It might be more reasonable to ask whether the United States is playing the game of divide and conquer.
Take other examples. Turkey has territorial disputes with Greece, a member of the European Union.
Does it mean that Turkey should negotiate with the EU rather than directly with Greece? If it doesn't, will Turkey be accused of plotting to divide and conquer?
And there are maritime delimitation problems between the United States and certain Caribbean countries. Therefore, should the US negotiate with the Caribbean Community rather than with the individual country concerned?
Some people may argue that China is a special case because of its size and fast pace of development. And it's natural to doubt that any insistence on bilateral negotiations by China is a conspiracy, to take advantage of the smaller countries.
If this is the case, then it is more natural to ask the US, the sole superpower on this globe, to exercise maximum restraint and make the utmost compromises in its dealings with any country in the world.
At least the US should watch what it says when it comes to the South China Sea issue.
This doesn't seem to be an excessive demand.
Luo Jia is a researcher from Wuhan University's China Institute of Boundary and Ocean Studies. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org