Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

A valuable book on maritime disputes

By Li Jianwei (China Daily) Updated: 2014-02-11 08:56

At a time when territorial disputes in the South China Sea have become increasingly complicated, Solving Disputes for Regional Cooperation and Development in the South China Sea: A Chinese Perspective has drawn the attention of scholars and the media, both at home and abroad.The book in English, published at the end of 2013 with support from Chinese Fund for the Humanities and Social Sciences, is the work of Wu Shichun, president of National Institute of South China Sea Studies.

The South China Sea disputes are not only matters of great concern for China and some of its Southeast Asian neighbors, but also interrelated with policies of regional and global powers and their interactions. In the near future, therefore, the South China Sea disputes will remain among the hottest security, regional conflict management and major-power relations issues in East Asia.

Wu has spent more than 20 years in regional diplomacy and research. He has also participated in the making of many policies. His rich first-hand experience of regional affairs, combined with his thorough research, makes Solving Disputes for Regional Cooperation and Development in the South China Sea an invaluable work.

The book is the first English publication with a systematic study of China's sovereignty claim over the South China Sea islands and the waters around them. With a detailed introduction to the history and current situation in the South China Sea, the book helps readers understand how the South China Sea disputes emerged and what is China's stance on the issues.

Wu's work is full of solid evidence and tells the grand story about how China first discovered, named and extended effective governance over Nansha Islands and its surrounding waters in the South China Sea. It creatively explains the actions of the Chinese government and people over the years in the South China Sea in terms of modern international law. The book will help Western readers better understand China's sovereignty claim because it uses a paradigm acceptable to both Chinese and Westerners.

A key dispute between China and some of its Southeast Asian neighbors is whether and how to apply the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The South China Sea disputes are more than simple maritime territorial disputes; they are essentially about sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea. Thus, it is improper to refer only to the UN Convention, which applies to maritime boundaries without any established principle on sovereignty, in order to resolve the disputes.

Chinese scholars lacking in-depth knowledge of history have studied the disputes within the limit of modern international law on the sea. Wu fills that void by conducting a systematic study of historical elements in the South China Sea disputes.

Another achievement of Solving Disputes for Regional Cooperation and Development in the South China Sea is that it lists the views of all claimants in the South China Sea disputes. Before the 1960s, the South China Sea disputes were interwoven with the invasion and intervention of colonial powers like Britain, France and Japan, with the discovery of oil and natural gas in the 1960s marking the beginning of a new round of struggle among regional countries for maritime territories and oilfields. Most claimant countries follow a general procedure, occupying maritime territories citing the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and then unilaterally exploiting the natural resources in those territories.

Among the disputing countries, Vietnam is said to have historical evidence of its claim. But its evidence is weaker than China's, while the historical relations between China and Vietnam combined with France's occupation of Vietnam have made the problem more complicated. The book reviews the claims of all disputing countries and offers a more neutral and persuasive angle to resolve the disputes.

The book says the disputes, which by their nature are complex enough, have been further complicated by the interference of regional and global powers. There is an overall consensus that the disputes cannot be resolved immediately, especially because the disputing countries tend to study their own claims while ignoring that of the other sides. Wu is neutral and suggests cooperation among all parties to end the disputes.

It is cooperation that has kept the disputes in the South China Sea under control and prevented them from snowballing into full-blown conflicts. China is right in insisting on peaceful resolutions to the South China Sea disputes through dialogue and cooperation.

The resolutions to the disputes will depend on how China implements this principle on the road to national rejuvenation. And Wu's book is expected to help in that endeavor.

The author is director of Oceanic Economy Institute, National Institute for South China Sea Studies.

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