Beijing sets up joint research centre on South China Sea issues

Boats at Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea are shown in this handout photo provided by Planet Labs, and captured on March 12, 2016.
Boats at Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea are shown in this handout photo provided by Planet Labs, and captured on March 12, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

China has established a South China Sea joint research centre in an academic-led push to support its claims in the resource-rich waters, amid escalating tensions over territorial disputes with some of its neighbours.

The China-South-east Asia Research Centre on the South China Sea (CSARC) was launched on Friday on the sidelines of the annual Boao Forum for Asia held in southern Hainan province.

It is meant to "strengthen academic and institutional exchanges and promote the joint maintenance of peace and stability in the sea by countries in the region", according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Founded by China's National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS) and Indonesia's Centre for Strategic and International Studies, the centre will eventually include other influential think-tanks in China and South-east Asia, Ms Yan Yan, NISCSS' deputy director of the research centre of ocean law and policy, told The Sunday Times.

"While we're just starting up with two founding organisations, we're definitely looking at inviting Singapore think-tanks and researchers to join us in the future because Singapore has many experts in this field," she said.

Dr Wu Shicun, president of NISCSS, a national-level institute affiliated with China's Foreign Ministry and State Oceanic Administration, said the centre is meant to be a platform for discussing issues on South China Sea, and a model for maritime research cooperation among countries in the region.

There will be frequent international symposiums and academic exchanges held at the CSARC based in Haikou, Hainan's provincial capital, he added in a report by Xinhua.

China, which claims most of the South China Sea, faces competing claims from Asean neighbours Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Tensions have risen over its deployment of missiles to disputed isles, while fishing spats have also flared up.

China's Ministry of Defence said Chinese ships left Qingdao port yesterday to take part in naval exercises off the coast of Indonesia, a week after the two countries were involved in a fishing row, Reuters reported.

The exercises, which involve more than a dozen nations such as the United States and Russia, will begin at Padang, the capital of West Sumatra province, and nearby islands on April 12.

Experts say that while China has grown its military might in the region, it has also renewed its focus within the academic community, backing increased research on South China Sea issues as part of a soft-power push for control.

Not only has the NISCSS, founded in 1996, been upgraded and expanded in the past decade to reflect Beijing's growing desire and ability to champion its claims in the South China Sea, but the Collaborative Innovation Centre of South China Sea Studies in Nanjing University was also established in 2012 as one of 14 national research projects prioritised by the central government.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 27, 2016, with the headline 'Beijing sets up joint research centre on S. China Sea issues'. Print Edition | Subscribe