South China Sea dispute: Hard to resume talks after tribunal ruling: Experts

Protesters during a rally by different activist groups over the South China Sea disputes, along a bay in metro Manila, Philippines on July 12.
Protesters during a rally by different activist groups over the South China Sea disputes, along a bay in metro Manila, Philippines on July 12.PHOTO: REUTERS

It would be difficult for China to resume talks with the Philippines on their territorial dispute if the latter insists on using the arbitral tribunal ruling as a basis, since doing so will imply that China accepts the ruling, a former Chinese government minister has said.

"If (the award) is a pre-condition, then it is very difficult to resume talks because it will be tantamount to our recognising (the award)," said Mr Zhao Qizheng, dean of the School of Journalism at Renmin University and a former State Council Information Office minister (the State Council is China's Cabinet).

He was responding to a question from The Straits Times regarding Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay's rejection yesterday of a Chinese government offer to hold talks "outside of and in disregard" of the tribunal's ruling last week.

The tribunal - based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea - had ruled overwhelmingly in favour of the Philippines in the arbitration case that Manila had brought against China's claims in the South China Sea. China had refused to take part in the arbitration and does not recognise its findings.

Mr Zhao, a keynote speaker at a closed-door forum on the South China Sea on Monday, yesterday also spoke at a media briefing on the forum, where he touched on the importance of resuming dialogue between China and the Philippines to resolve their dispute.

"This has been a conflict for three decades. We cannot resolve it in three months and not even in three years, but we cannot push it back indefinitely," he said, adding that the two sides could start with easy matters like fishing, disaster rescue and joint development of resources.

Also acknowledging the difficulty of resuming talks, Wuhan University law professor Yee Sienho said public opinion in the Philippines has been hijacked by the tribunal award and that the mood is not right for tough negotiation.

He suggested that the two sides begin by discussing the question of what is to be negotiated and that Track 2 dialogue - that is, unofficial contacts such as between non-governmental organisations and universities - in private could be helpful.

"Perhaps some kind of understanding can be reached that indeed the award is extreme and unfair," he said. He added that this could be a point of departure for further negotiation.

Prof Yee further pointed out that this feeling could be glimpsed in the statement from the European Union, which did not demand that China comply with the award but merely acknowledged the award.

The Chinese experts were also asked if China would try and prevent a joint statement at the upcoming Asean foreign ministers' meeting in Laos as it had an Asean joint statement addressing the South China Sea issue at a special Asean-China meeting last month.

"Absolutely no, it's absolutely not necessary," said Prof Li Guoqiang.

"China has always taken a respectful attitude towards Asean and at the meeting in Laos, China will continue to respect Asean," added the deputy director of the Institute of Chinese Borderland Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which organised the forum with support from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Prof Li added, however, that "we would also hope that all the members of Asean will understand China's stand on (the arbitration ruling), and that we want to go back to friendly negotiation through diplomatic channels".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 20, 2016, with the headline 'Hard to resume talks after tribunal ruling: Experts'. Print Edition | Subscribe