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Diplomacy

Chinese officials remember diplomat who helped shape ‘Law of the Sea’

Li Shengjiao was regarded as China’s top expert on international maritime law and boundary demarcation issues

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 August, 2018, 7:47pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 August, 2018, 10:42pm

Foreign affairs officials and observers have remembered a Chinese diplomat who was involved in the creation of an international treaty on the use of the world’s seas and oceans on the first anniversary of his death.

Li Shengjiao, who served as Counsellor of the Chinese Mission to the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), died on August 6, 2017 at the age of 82 from an unspecified illness.

He was regarded as China’s top expert on international maritime law and boundary demarcation issues. In a 40-year career he was also involved in China’s border negotiations with Myanmar, India, North Korea and the Soviet Union.

The negotiations for the UNCLOS, of which China was a signatory, took place between 1973 and 1982, and Li was an important member of the Chinese team.

Nowadays, as a permanent member of United Nations Security Council, China is involved in negotiations for all manner of international laws and treaties. Its role was much smaller in Li’s time, and he is regarded as a pioneer, especially as he suggested to then premier Zhou Enlai that China should distinguish 12 nautical miles of territorial sea and a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone within the UN law.

“Professor Li was one of the few pioneers in the profession, a doyen and senior expert of China’s boundary and ocean affairs,” said Ouyang Yujing, director general of the foreign ministry’s Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs.

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Li’s contribution also included confirming demarcation lines on the map of China, and resolving boundary disputes on both land and sea with its neighbours. His legacy came to the fore when China’s disputes with other countries over the South China Sea went for international arbitration under the UNCLOS.

“Chinese experts defended their own national interests, but also those of other countries,” said maritime law expert Wang Hanling. “The international law is a result of a power struggle and compromises by all parties.”

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Li, whose given name translates as “to educate with a stern voice”, was born in January 1935 to an upper-class family. His mother was a pianist and actress, while his father, Li Linsi, was a prominent educator, diplomat and linguist, and a pioneering figure in China-Europe cultural exchanges in the 1930s.

His father also had the nickname “China’s Mahatma Gandhi” and helped Jews to escape persecution and settle in Shanghai during the second world war.

Li Shengjiao read economic geology at Nanjing University in 1952, and entered the diplomatic service after graduation in 1956. He was part of a team working on issues of territory, boundaries and demarcation at the foreign ministry, and later went on to study international law.

He was also a talented footballer who played for the Nanjing municipal soccer team, represented Nanjing at national level sporting events while at university, and became coach of the foreign ministry’s basketball team and won its table tennis competition.

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After retirement Li dedicated his time to educating the next generation of international law experts and was involved in the promotion of Chinese culture overseas.

He was the first Chinese diplomat to have a column with the Huffington Post.