SINGAPORE welcomes as a "positive move" China's recent statement to the United Nations in which it acknowledges the importance of international law in resolving its territorial dispute with Vietnam.
"China's statement makes an important point of principle, that it seeks to make its claims in accordance with international law," said Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam in Beijing yesterday, adding that "the world should give due credit to the statement that China has made".
While making clear that Singapore takes no stand on the merits of the rival claims in the South China Sea, he emphasised that "there can be disputes over international law. But the fact that you accept that your claims have to comply with international law is a very important step". Four Asean states, China and Taiwan have overlapping claims in the waters.
Beijing had issued the lengthy statement on Sunday after more than a month of tension with Vietnam that began when a Chinese oil rig was moved on May 2 into waters that Hanoi also claims.
The statement drew together evidence for Beijing's claims that included historical accounts of naval expeditions during the Northern Song dynasty (960-1126AD) and Vietnamese maps describing the isles with Chinese names.
It also pledged that "China firmly upholds the purpose and principles of the Charter of the UN, the basic norms of international relations and fundamental principles of international law".
Mr Shanmugam did not want to be drawn into whether this acknowledgement of the role of international law was a philosophical shift on China's part.
China has pressed a claim over 90 per cent of the South China Sea in accordance with a historical "nine-dash line".
At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore earlier this month, Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong argued that China's sovereignty over islands within the line predated the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) and that the law has no retrospective effect.
The Philippines has gone to the international tribunal at the Hague to challenge the validity of the line, but China has refused to participate in the case, saying a declaration it made when ratifying Unclos excluded the dispute.
Beijing has also insisted that its territorial disputes in the resource-rich waters be resolved bilaterally with rival claimants.
Its statement on Sunday was presented to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon with a request for it to be circulated to members.
At that time, it was seen as a bid to sway international opinion, and China's strongest defence yet of its claims.
Yesterday, Mr Shanmugam pointed out where important elements had been overlooked:
"That statement reaffirms a 1958 declaration that China has made where it listed the islands and the basis on which the surrounding seas of those islands are claimed. Basically on the basis of territorial sea. Second, the statement acknowledged the importance of international law and the need to be compliant to international law and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Thirdly, the statement also acknowledged that the waters between the islands claimed by China and Vietnam have not yet been delimited."
He said it is unfortunate that the international community has largely not taken note of the Chinese statement's philosophy regarding international law.
"I think the world would be wrong to simply say, oh if China puts forward a claim, that by itself is an aggressive step."