Tensions in South China Sea should not affect broader China-US cooperation

Confrontations between China and the US in the disputed South China Sea are not likely to devastate the world's most important bilateral relationship, because the two great powers still have common interest at a broader level.

The two countries should deepen communication, take into account each other's core interests and manage the differences in order to avoid miscalculations and military conflicts in the South China Sea.

The US should show respect to China's claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea, while China should in turn take notice of the US' reasonable concerns such as the freedom of navigation right recognized by international law in the region.

China has consistently carried out a peaceful South China Sea policy which contributes to the freedom and security of navigation and settlement of disputes through dialogue and consultation in the region, where the lawsuit filed by the Philippines against China is among factors that have increased regional tensions.

China's firm stance of not taking part in the arbitration case can be traced down to the fact that the essence of the maritime dispute between China and the Philippines is all about territorial sovereignty, which is not within the jurisdiction of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In 2006, China made a declaration on optional exceptions under Article 298 of the UNCLOS, dismissing maritime delimitation, historical rights, military activities and related matters as factors subject to arbitration.

Article 298 stipulates that a state party is entitled to reject an arbitration if the disputes concerning maritime delimitation, territorial sovereignty, historical rights and military activities cannot be solved through means and procedures recognized by the international community. Any of the above disputes, if denied by a state party, is not covered by the jurisdiction of an arbitration court. Hence, the arbitration court ruling made on July 12 is a non-binding decision.

China has gained sovereignty over some islands in the South China Sea in the process of its long-term exploration of the waters. In 1946, China resumed its sovereignty over some islands and reefs in the South China Sea, which was a part of the international order established after World War II.

The results of the arbitration by The Hague-based court will not make a great impact on China's relationship with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and some of its member countries involved. But the relationship will be on the collision course if some ASEAN nations involved make use of the ruling to take provocative action in the South China Sea. And China will not sit idle and will definitely take action to safeguard its sovereignty in the region.

There are many historical examples of countries refusing to enforce the decisions of arbitration courts. In the 1980s, after the International Court of Justice ruled in favor of Nicaragua in an arbitration case against the US, the American representatives tore the written judgment into pieces before the judges. When Nicaragua submitted the case to the United Nations Security Council for forcible law enforcement, the US exercised veto on the grounds that the case involved then President Ronald Reagan's policy toward Latin America, which was not a legal issue but a political one.

Only 33 percent of the decisions over the cases covered by the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice were enforced in the past, let alone the arbitration rulings. So, China has abundant reasons to reject the July 12 ruling.

In addition, China's island building activities in the South China Sea are wrongly seen as a move to expand its claim over the waters by changing the geographical features. China's land reclamation, which is conducted on its own territory, is in line with the principles of international law, a sharp contrast to Vietnam, another claimant to the South China Sea, which has not faced action after conducting island building activities on 19 illegally seized islands in the waters.

China has also promised to build facilities on the islands for civilian purposes primarily, with some military facilities such as radar constructed for defensive use. But China will never give up its effort of building more military facilities, if the US and its regional allies adopt a hostile policy toward China.

The author is the president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies.

(Opinions expressed in the article don't represent those of the Sino-US.com.)

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