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Mainstream, VOL L, No 37, September 1, 2012

Beijing’s South China Sea Pledge

Sunday 2 September 2012, by Harish Chandola

China has moderated its stance on the South China Sea. It has now said that it is committed to settling the South China Sea dispute by peaceful means with the countries concerned through direct and friendly negotiations in accordance with international law and the contemporary law of the sea, according to its newspapers and magazines, including “News from China” published by its embassy in Delhi.
It has, however, not abandoned its territorial claim over islands in that Sea, including the Spratly Islands, where India along with Vietnam intends to explore oil resources. The South China Sea islands are also claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, besides Vietnam.

China has pledged that the dispute will not affect freedom of navigation in that important navigation route in the West Pacific. It promised, all countries will continue to enjoy freedom of navigation and overflights in the area.
The South China Sea stretches 2000 kilometres from north to south and 1000 kilometres from east to west and is connected by narrow straits or waterways with the Pacific Ocean to the east and the Indian Ocean to the west. It is a semi-closed sea extending from northeast to southwest and covers an area of about 3.5 million sqaure kilometres.

China calls the islands in that Sea Nanhai Islands, which consist of four scattered groups: the Dongsha Islands, Xisha Islands (also referred to as the Paracel Islands), Zhongsha Islands and Nansha Islands (also referred to as the Spartly Islands). These consist of islands, sand, reefs, shoals and banks of different numbers. Among them the Nansha Islands are the largest in the number of islands and reefs, of which the Taiping Island is the biggest, covering an area of about 0.5 square kilometres, and has green vegetation and fresh water. Oil deposits are believed to be located below its waters.

China says it discovered the Nansha Islands as early as in the Han Dynasty (2nd century BC) and since the Tang Dynasty (late 8th century and early 9th century) successive Chinese govern-ments have exercised jurisdiction continuously over them by taking administrative measures and carrying out naval patrol. These historical facts are shown in official documents, local chronicles and official maps of different dynasties of China.

In 1933, France invaded nine Nansha Islands, over which the Chinese Government made repre-sentations to France. In 1939 Japan occupied these islands during its war against China. After Japan’s surrender, the Chinese Government recovered the islands in 1946 and exercised sovereignty over them. After recovering the islands, the Chinese Government in December 1947 drew a map of the islands in December 1947, marking on it an 11-section dotted line starting from the Beilunhe Estuary at the China-Vietnam border in the west to an area northeast of the Taiwan Island in the east. The names of four islands in the South China Sea as well as the names of a large number of individual islands, reefs, banks and shoals within the dotted line were marked on the map. The map was officially published in February 1948 by the Chinese Ministry of Interior as an annex to the Map of Administrative Regions of the Republic of China. The map was made public and has been used ever since.
After its publication, no other country made representations to China against it. The map was published in many countries, in the Stan-dard World Atlas published in 1952 by Japan, the annex pictures of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia published in 1953 and the Atlas Larousse Modern published in France in 1964. The Chinese Gove-rnment issued a statement on its Territorial Sea in 1958, reaffirming that the islands were Chinese territories.

The Vietnamese territorial claim is based on the “geographical proximity” on the ground that the Nansha Islands or some of the islands and reefs are closer to its territory. China says that “geographical proximity” does not, under international law, justify the invasion by one country on parts of the territory of another.
China says in 2000, after 26 years of negotiations, it settled with Vietnam, on the basis of international law, the delimitation of territorial sea and continental shelf in Beibu Bay and made arrangements for fishery cooperation in it.

On China’s initiative, oil companies of China, the Philippines and Vietnam, signed in 2005
a tripartite agreement for undertaking joint maritime seismic research in the South China Sea. China and Malaysia also reached agreement to resolve disputes in accordance with univer-sally recognised principles of international law and maintain peace and stability in the area. China and Brunei agreed to work together to promote peace and stability in the South China Sea.

China has called for “shelving differences and carrying out joint development” in the handling of oil and gas development issues in the disputed areas of the Sea. Joint development, it says, will not only bring benefits to all parties concerned, but also create a favourable environ-ment and atmosphere for settling disputes in the future.

The South China Sea issue involves disputes between countries over territorial sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction. It is a complicated and sensitive issue. The Sea has been China’s traditional fishing ground after the second century BC. Around 400,000 Chinese fishermen conduct fishing in it and it is vital to their livelihood. China began to impose a limit on the total number and power of marine fishing vessels in 1998 and started enforcing a summer moratorium in 1999.
No party to the disputes should impose its claims of jurisdiction on other parties, China has stated. Based on this, China has called for “shelving differences and carrying out joint development in the handling of oil and gas development issues in the disputed South China Sea”. China says joint development will not only bring benefits to all parties concerned, but also create a favourable environment for settling disputes in the future.

Meanwhile a two-and-a-half month fishing ban has been imposed by China, from May 16 to August 1, in the South China Sea, covering areas north of the 12th parallel of north latitude, including Huangyan Island but excluding most of the Nansha Islands.

China has reiterated that it takes seriously the security of and unimpeded access to inter-national shipping lanes in the South China Sea. It says China and other coastal countries have made a lot of efforts to uphold freedom of naviga-tion and maritime security in the Sea, including cooperation in fighting piracy and criminals at sea. As a result, the Sea is peaceful and its shipping lanes are 
open.

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