CHINA'S use of historical rights to press its claims in the South China Sea cannot be laughed away, but whether Beijing possesses a strong claim is another matter, Singapore's Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.
Singapore hopes the use of international law would help resolve the overlapping territorial claims by several countries including China, Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea. Recent tensions have raised the risk of clashes erupting in the waters.
Being a pragmatic nation, Singapore sees the disputes - in which it takes no sides - as problems that can at best be managed rather than resolved.
"From Singapore's perspective, it does not matter who owns which island, but where there are disputes, we want it to be dealt with in a way that doesn't lead to ships confronting each other, shots being fired," he said at the 7th International Institute for Strategic Studies - Fullerton lecture attended by diplomats, businessmen and academicians.
Mr Shanmugam was asked if it was possible to reconcile China's view, which rests on history, with that of South-east Asian states which emphasises the importance of international law.
The ownership of islands is determined through a variety of factors under international law, including historical facts, he said.
"So it is not as if a historical claim can be laughed away. Whether you have a good historical claim is a separate matter."
The disputes are also more nuanced than are being portrayed by international media, which painted China as a "big bully" which is becoming increasingly aggressive in pressing its claims.
The latest flashpoint, when China moved an oil rig near an island that is part of the Paracels claimed by both China and Vietnam, was an example, he said.
In 1958, as the Vietnam War was raging, China declared its ownership of these islands and surrounding waters, he said. North Vietnam accepted its claim, China says. However, he added, Vietnam today argues that the North could not give away islands it did not own, that it did so under pressure from China whose support it needed during the war, and that it had, in fact, accepted only certain parts of China's claims.
"I think those are matters of argument. I'm not saying Vietnam is right or China is right. But if you look carefully, the dispute was a little bit more nuanced than the way it was being portrayed in international media."
On the other hand, he pointed out that China was not helping itself by being vague when it used the nine-dash map to stake its claims in the South China Sea.
"If it is the islands and the waters associated with the islands in accordance with international law, I think very few people will have an argument... the law recognises that you could make such a claim, whether you indeed are entitled to it, is a separate matter."
It remains unclear if the high seas were also being claimed.
"As long as there is a lack of clarity there, China opens itself up for a lot of questions."
Mr Shanmugam also said all the claimant states were guilty of adding to territorial tensions.
"No one party is responsible... There are a number of parties whose actions are not in strict conformation with international law," he said.
It would be ideal if the parties started clarifying their claims but public opinion pressures would prevent them from doing so.
"What is rational in international terms, to do a deal, to structure, to give and take, may not always be doable within the framework or context of local domestic political opinion.
"We managed all these issues successfully by leaving them aside," he said. "Now all the stuff is out there and there is potential for tension."