CHINA can send a clear signal that its rise will be a peaceful one by reconsidering its current objection to submitting territorial disputes to international courts.
Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh yesterday appealed to China to turn to the courts for at least some of its current disagreements with its neighbours, saying it would allay fears that these countries have over its ascendancy.
"To do so would give substance to the Chinese doctrine that your rise in the world will be a peaceful one," said Professor Koh at a dialogue at Harvard University on Thursday.
He had been asked by veteran United States diplomat Nicholas Burns for his comments on various territorial spats in Asia, and he gave a broad sweep of the context of the disputes as well as the options that lay ahead.
The dialogue was one of several events to commemorate the ambassador's recognition by Harvard University as one of the world's top negotiators.
The university conferred on him its Great Negotiator Award at a ceremony on Thursday evening.
The award, which recognises Prof Koh's contribution to maritime law among others, comes at a time when there are heightened tensions over Chinese assertiveness in the South and East China seas. The Philippines recently unilaterally sought United Nations arbitration in its dispute with China, a move Beijing has denounced.
On possible options for competing parties, Prof Koh said the idea favoured by late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping of working together to develop resources while leaving ownership ambiguous cannot move forward now, as the Chinese claims are unclear.
"You cannot have joint development unless you have identified what is the specific area that you wish to jointly develop," he said, referring to the Chinese nine- dashed-line claim that covers most of the South China Sea.
"What is the specific nature of the Chinese claim? Are the Chinese saying we claim sovereignty to all the islands, rocks and shoals within the nine dashed lines? Or are the Chinese saying something more, that we have a right to the fish, to the oil and gas resources in the continental shelf enclosed by these nine dashes?"
He would not say specifically if he thought the Chinese claims were consistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) he helped seal.
He also stressed that the South China Sea is but a small part of Asean's relationship with China, and that the region views China's ascendancy in a positive way.
His participation in two separate dialogues with Harvard faculty and students on Thursday capped a week of activities, which ended with him receiving the award for negotiation that night.
He is the first Singaporean to receive the honour in the award's 14-year history.
Some 10 others have received the award, including former US secretary of state James Baker, who negotiated German reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the late US ambassador Richard Holbrooke, who was the key broker of the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the three-year- long Bosnian war. But rather than any single achievement, the award recognises a lifetime of good work.
Prof Koh's notable achievements include the successful conclusion of Unclos in 1982, his leadership of the committee that created the framework for the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, and his efforts in the two legal battles between Singapore and Malaysia over land rights.
Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam congratulated him, noting that the ambassador had served with "great distinction".
"Tommy has displayed the tremendous skills and typical grace of the consummate negotiator. The award cannot be more well- deserved."
Professor Jim Sebenius, a negotiations expert at Harvard Business School, said the panel deciding on the award unanimously agreed that Prof Koh was "unique in his capacity to effectively manage large-scale negotiations as well as act as an advocate negotiator".
"It was an easy call," he said.
For his part, Prof Koh received the award with his trademark humility. He quipped at the award dinner: "I am not a great negotiator. I have never won a negotiation with my wife."