March 25, 2013

Peaceful Negotiations for East Sea Disputes

Participants from the US, Vietnam, China, Australia, Britain, the Philippines and Singapore made an in-depth analysis of the causes of recent tensions in the East Sea, the role of international law, US-China relations and the role ASEAN plays in settling disputes.They all shared the view that the East Sea has huge oil and gas reserves and abundant fishing resources, in addition to a strategic geopolitical position with key international shipping routes, which makes it the centrepiece of territorial disputes among regional countries.

A Vietnamese representative gave evidence at the workshop asserting Vietnam’s indisputable sovereignty over the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagos in the East Sea.Nguyen Thi Thanh Ha, head of the International Law and Treaty Department under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reiterated Vietnam’s consistent policy of settling East Sea disputes according to international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).She stressed the importance of peaceful negotiations for settling disputes, especially those related to maritime sovereignty and jurisdiction.   

Zhu Chenghu, Director General of the Research Department of the National Defense University of China, attributed the on-going East Sea tensions in part to the US’s recent shift of focus to the Asia and Pacific region, saying China fears that the US policy will obstruct its development.According to Zhu, China and the US both have interests in the East Sea, and they hope to maintain peace and stability, ensure maritime freedom, and deal with complicated situations in the region peacefully.A number of delegates at the workshop said the emergence of nationalism among concerned parties, primarily China, is making the situation more complex.

Christopher Hill, former US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, suggested that China identify its primary interests and harmonise them with those of other ASEAN countries.He stressed that all the parties concerned need to take a more modern, mutually beneficial approach to sea-related disputes, rather than demanding bilateral negotiations, as China has recently done.According to Hill, sea-related disputes with neighbouring countries will not benefit China - a globally influential nation. It should instead focus on developing good relations with its neighbours, he said.He shared the US’s experience in developing relationships with smaller Latin American countries, saying the US tries to prove that it respects these countries’ interests.

Yang Fang from the Singapore Centre on Asia and Globalisation, pointed to the fact that since it was signed in 2002, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea (DOC) has helped prevent major disputes among the parties concerned, especially those involving the military.He suggested that the concered parties work on developing a more legally binding document such as a code of conduct (COC) as soon as possible to helpsettle sea-related issues in the future.A representative from the Philippines argued that a COC should be implemented along with international laws because it cannot address all the specificregional issues.Robert Beckman, director of the Centre for International Law under the National University of Singapore, said China should promote its interests in accordance with international law. He explained that if an international tribunal delivers a verdict in a Philippine lawsuit against China, both parties’ claims will be made clear under UNCLOS, laying a foundation for a negotiation process, which many see as a long-term, viable solution to legal disputes regarding the East Sea.

The Director of the US Asia-Pacific Security Programme, Patrick Cronin, said the Philippine case will help clarify China’s claim on the area included within its “nine-dotted line”, which has been described as illegal.Professor Jerome Cohen of New York University’s School of Law stated that the situation in the East Sea is quite complex, and the Philippine suit couldbreak the deadlock in the negotiation process. If the tribunal rules that the “nine-dotted line” is illegal, this could create a basis for negotiationson sea disputes.

Professor Huang Jing, director of the Singapore Centre on Asia and Globalisation, posited that the crux of the matter is to settle the dispute peacefully. To do this, the parties concerned need to follow international laws, as well as internationally recognised norms and practices.They need to restrain themselves from escalating the situation into a major crisis and create a framework that will enable them to sit down and work outviable solutions.

Duncan Mccargo, Professor of Southeast Asian Politics at the University of Leeds in the UK, proposed promoting international law and maintaining the existing mechanisms in which ASEAN plays a central role, including the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting plus (ADMM+). He underlined the need to deal with an increased military budget of several countries, which is damaging the confidence among regional countries, and strengthen US-China cooperation rather than get involved in face-to-face confrontation.He concluded that settling disputes in the East Sea is a long process that requires the cooperation and patience of all parties concerned.