Solution 'lies in political will' rather than legal resolution

People gather in Hong Kong's Chater Garden to protest the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruling.
People gather in Hong Kong's Chater Garden to protest the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruling.PHOTO: EPA

While the Arbitral Tribunal ruling on the South China Sea cannot resolve territorial disputes there, it has given China the opportunity to return to the path of setting aside disputes and jointly developing the contested areas, an analyst has said.

Noting that the South China Sea territorial disputes were a political problem and not a simple legal issue, Professor Zheng Yongnian contended that "the law has never effectively resolved international disputes".

Besides, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) is a contemporary construct while the South China Sea disputes are an issue that goes back to ancient times, Prof Zheng, the director of the East Asian Institute, said yesterday in his keynote speech at a forum on the South China Sea.

Instead, "the broader political environment and political will are more important than anything else", especially when a major power like China is involved, for sovereignty and border issues to be successfully resolved.

He gave the example of how China and Vietnam successfully resolved their land border dispute through bilateral talks.

Prof Zheng was referring to the Arbitral Tribunal ruling last Tuesday on an arbitration case brought by the Philippines against China's expansive claims in the South China Sea.

He suggested that the ruling gave an opening to China to go back to the policy of the late Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping of putting aside disputes so that rival claimants could jointly develop the resources within the disputed areas.

China, said Prof Zheng, could do several things, including turning facilities it constructed on reefs and islands it occupies, such as lighthouses, into public goods for use by not just states in the region but also countries like the United States.

With fishing, one of the most problematic issues in the region, China could start negotiating fishing deals with other claimant states. There could be talks on protection of the marine environment as well.

Apart from the Philippines, China's nine-dash line claim to almost all of the South China Sea overlaps with those of Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.

The other keynote speaker, Mr Zhao Qizheng, who is dean of the School of Journalism at Renmin University, reiterated China's stand that the arbitration is a "political farce under the pretext of law" and that the ruling is "null and void".

But he said also that China hoped "negotiations will be resumed soon" and relations between the two sides could be back on track.

Speaking to the media on the sidelines of the forum, Professor Li Guoqiang, deputy director of the Institute of Borderland Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said, Unclos and international law at the moment cannot adequately deal with or guarantee China's rights and jurisdiction over the area within the nine-dash line that were developed through its long history.

However, it would be "irrational" for China to withdraw from Unclos because it is a beneficiary of the convention. Instead, countries should come together to make Unclos more complete, he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2016, with the headline 'Solution 'lies in political will' rather than legal resolution'. Print Edition | Subscribe