Strengthen Unclos to clear up ambiguity over South China Sea

The recent editorial on the South China Sea disputes alleged that China is attempting to "subvert the very treaty it signed onto" ("Abiding by global maritime order"; June 27).

However, one can also argue that Beijing has indeed acted in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

As the Chinese Foreign Ministry has reiterated, China made a declaration on Optional Exemptions in 2006, in accordance with Article 298 of Unclos, excluding itself from the compulsory dispute-settlement proceedings in Part XV of Unclos in terms of maritime disputes over delimitation, military activities, among others ("China's non-participation lawful"; March 5).

Clearly, the issue here stems from structural weaknesses in Unclos.

Some of its clauses and terms are rather vague, creating the potential for misunderstanding and contradiction.

This has often occurred where countries have made competing claims for Exclusive Economic Zones.

For instance, the 200 nautical mile rule has given rise to differing interpretations.

Moreover, when a single dispute falls under the ambit of multiple legal documents, there is no clear order of precedence.

Let us remember that China's actions are also regulated by the China-Asean 2002 Declaration on the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, a document that is just as relevant and no less legitimate.

It is, of course, a fundamentally good idea to establish clear guidelines on the maritime interactions of nation states.

Therefore, it is in the interest of the international community that Unclos be clarified and strengthened.

In addition to correcting instances of ambiguity and inconsistency, Unclos could stand to benefit from more concrete dispute-resolution mechanisms, perhaps in the form of legally binding instruments.

As is the case in so many aspects of international affairs, there is always the danger of stakeholders with a vested interest attempting to obstruct such reforms, or bending terms to serve their own needs.

It is thus necessary for neutral or impartial parties - states such as Singapore - to step up and assume a balancing role in the international community.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2016, with the headline 'Strengthen Unclos to clear up ambiguity over South China Sea'. Print Edition | Subscribe