South China Sea reclamation an economic move: Chinese scholar

A LEADING Chinese scholar has defended China's reclamation works in the disputed South China Sea, saying they are to increase the country's insufficient exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Speaking at a forum on the sidelines of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue security summit, Professor Shen Dingli also called for the conclusion of a legally binding Code of Conduct to manage disputes, the shelving of sovereign disputes and the co-development of EEZs.

Explaining the need to expand China's EEZ, he said it was now too small per capita for China's needs, including in fish resources.

"Chinese people want to live better lives but they have less than average resources and therefore their legitimate needs cannot be met," said the associate dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University.

He noted that China signed on to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) prematurely in 1988 having failed to imagine its needs 30 years later.

"But we have to honour our international commitment by not quitting (Unclos)," he said.

On the other hand, China "has lots of islands in the South China Sea. We drew a line almost 70 years ago to say (the) islands on our side of the line belong to us".

This was a reference to the nine-dashed line around most of the South China Sea in a regional map that China published in 1947.

Vietnam in 1958 recognised China's claims while the Philippines changed its position in 1997 and Malaysia did not raise any objection until 1970, Prof Shen said.

Some countries began to take islands within the line without first consulting China or persuading it to compromise, he said. China was unhappy but wanted to maintain a peaceful foreign policy and so did not act after 1988.

It now wants to claim the island-based EEZs without fighting a war or going to an international court or ending its peaceful foreign policy.

"So we are doing island reclamation to consolidate the waters not occupied by others," he said.

But this is being unfairly slammed by the US, which ignored the other countries' previous actions, he said.

Washington wants China to stop the reclamation works, saying the move is provocative and changing the regional status quo. And while China has couched its activity in the area in economic terms, the US accuses it of militarising the territorial disputes.

Prof Shen said "how to balance our interests with our friends' interests, our perception of threat and American perception of threats and interests" should be the subject of the current Shangri-La Dialogue.

suinoi@sph.com.sg