Jointly Safeguarding Peace, Stability and Development in the South China Sea with Dialogue, Consultation and Win-Win Cooperation
Keynote Speech by Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui at International Symposium on the South China Sea: From the Perspective of Cooperation
2 September 2020
I am delighted to join you. We are here today to discuss about a very important issue: promoting peace and cooperation in the South China Sea.
We just heard the encouraging message from State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi. It is a brief summary of Chinese positions on the South China Sea. It also led us to look at the issue through a positive and constructive view.
The COVID-19 is still spreading globally. Unilateralism and trade-bullying are making the world more uncertain and unstable. The US has openly interfered in the South China Sea, with an attempt to contain China. Foreign Ministers’ meetings on East Asia cooperation will be held next week. The signals from countries in the region sent on this issue will definitely draw attention.
At this background, I’d like to reiterate that China’s position and commitments on South China Sea remain unchanged. Just like State Councilor Wang Yi said at his message, we will continue to work with ASEAN countries to make the South China Sea a Sea of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation.
China and ASEAN are close neighbors that could not move. This year marks 17 years since China joined the TAC (Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia), and 18 years after the DOC (Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea) was signed by us. Next year will be the 30th anniversary of the establishment of dialogue partnership between the two sides. Now ASEAN is the largest trade partner of China. In the first half of the year, the trade volume between China and ASEAN reached 299 billion USD, a remarkable increase of 5.6% amid the pandemic and the global economic downturn. Last year the exchange of visits between the two sides was over 60 million.
The above-mentioned facts show that the history of bilateral engagement is the process of deepening interaction, and a process of managing the disputes in the South China Sea. The relationship between China and ASEAN is a comprehensive one. The issue of South China Sea is only a small part of that. Of course, if we could manage the issue well, it will make the bilateral picture shine. If we could not manage it well, the picture will dim. Till now we have managed it well. We would like to keep the momentum well.
First, China believes in settling the disputes of the South China Sea through negotiation and consultation. We believe in managing differences through dialogue and cooperation.
China was the first to discover and name the islands and related waters. China is also the first to develop and exercise effective jurisdiction over them. When France intruded into some islands and reefs of Nansha in 1933, the Chinese government made solemn representations with the French. The islands were illegally occupied by Japan during the Second World War. They were returned to China after the war. China released the dotted line in 1948. For a long time, there was no dispute from any other country. In the 1970s, oil and gas were discovered in the South China Sea. Then some countries began to make territorial claims. When UNCLOS was adopted in the 1980s, countries in this region found their maritime claims overlapping with each other. That further complicated the disputes.
If you review the history, you would find that China’s claim is based on solid historical and legal foundation. China has indisputable sovereignty over these islands and their adjacent waters. Since 1980s, China has been promoting the idea of joint development while shelving the disputes. But we have never forced it on any country. The discussions on this idea are still going on. There are thousands of oil and gas wells in the disputed areas of the South China Sea. None of them belongs to China. We are firmly opposed to the illegal development. We also need oil and gas, but we do not want to complicate the matter by unilateral development.
Together we are committed to the obligations of the TAC, and the full implementation of the DOC. We propose to conclude the COC consultations within three years. COVID-19 slows down the process of COC consultations. But we are confident to make up for the time lost. We will work more efficiently and effectively to speed up the consultations. The good news is that tomorrow the working group meeting on COC will resume.
China has proposed a cooperation mechanism of the littoral states of the South China Sea. We are actively promoting Pan-South China Sea economic cooperation. China is ready to work with ASEAN countries to build a Partnership on Blue Economy. We have reached consensus on Maritime Silk Road. We are pushing forward the New Land-and-Maritime Corridor. We could use the China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund for greater benefits for our people.
Second, China is firm in upholding and developing international rule of law. We support handling the South China Sea issue in accordance with international law including UNCLOS.
UNCLOS is a delicate balance of the positions of various parties. The Convention regulates the legal status of marine areas, rights and duties of the States and major maritime activities. It is an important legal instrument on contemporary international maritime order. As a State Party, China abides by UNCLOS and complies with its duties.
Despite its crucial role, UNCLOS is not what it is all about. Beyond UNCLOS, there is also general international law. Paragraph 8 of the Preamble makes it clear that “matters not regulated by this Convention continue to be governed by the rules and principles of general international law”. Since UNCLOS took effect, there have been cases in which countries use other rules of international law to handle maritime disputes. Furthermore, some countries and regions have handled their overlapping maritime claims with regional rules or arrangements. For example, the Mediterranean states and the littoral states of the Caspian Sea.
We need to view objectively the authority and limitations of UNCLOS. Then we can make correct interpretation and application. The South China Sea issue concerns not just UNCLOS, but also territorial sovereignty. Its proper solution is only possible when the international law, including UNCLOS, is applied comprehensively and accurately.
DOC and COC should also be the rules and regulations abide by China and ASEAN countries. Some country is also talking about a legally binding COC. This also shows that UNCLOS is not the only legal institutions governing the law of sea.
Third, the South China Sea arbitration case cannot solve the issue. China’s position on the case is clear and firm. It has solid ground in international law.
China seeks settlement of disputes concerning territorial sovereignty through negotiation and consultation. We oppose any forceful solutions. The South China Sea issue has a complex history. It involves national sentiments and a country’s dignity.
In exercising their jurisdiction, the international judicial or arbitrary bodies must seek the consent of the countries concerned. This is rightly implied in the State sovereignty principle. The arbitration cases are about territorial sovereignty and maritime delimitation. UNCLOS does not regulate issues of territorial sovereignty. As for maritime delimitation, China has made a declaration, which has excluded the application of arbitration. Moreover, with a series of bilateral documents and the DOC, China and the Philippines agreed to settle the disputes through negotiation. However, the Tribunal did not take into consideration of the nature of the disputes. It dismissed China’s declaration under UNCLOS. It disregarded the agreement between China and the Philippines for negotiation and consultation. It has clear flaws in fact finding and law application. China did not accept or participate in the arbitration. We do not accept or recognize the so-called award.
Fourth, the US interference has been the source of risks in the South China Sea. We need to jointly reject these risks and safeguard peace and stability.
The South China Sea is open and inclusive. Neither China nor ASEAN wants to turn the sea into an arena for power. We don’t want it to become a tool for geopolitical competition. The freedom of navigation has never been an issue in these waters. It is only an excuse created by those who wanted to interfere and make trouble.
Recently the US has made repeated provocations in the South China Sea. It broke the promise of not taking sides, denied the legitimate interests of China and supported the arbitration. Moreover, it keeps flexing its muscles, and increased military activities in the South China Sea. Though it is not a member of UNCLOS, the US openly interfered in the election of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. It tried to stop countries from supporting the Chinese candidate, citing the South China Sea issue. In the end the Chinese candidate was elected by a vote of overwhelming majority. A big slam on the face!
By interfering in issue, the US is trying to hijack regional countries. It tries to undermine and divided China and ASEAN countries, forcing them to take sides. A troubled South China Sea only serves the interests of the US and its global agenda, while countries in the region have to bear the costs. It clearly shows that the US has become the biggest threat to peace in the South China Sea the entire region. It is a trouble-maker for cooperation, development and prosperity in the region.
Apart from its interference in the South China Sea, the US established the QUAD, an anti-China front line, also known as the mini NATO. This reflects the cold war mentality of the US. China does not make trouble, but we are not afraid of trouble. China will not be distracted by these provocations. We will stay calm and tackle the impulsive moves. We will firmly defend our sovereignty, security and right to development. At the same time, we are ready to work with the US to jointly promote a China-US relationship based on coordination, cooperation and stability.
If the situation further worsens, no country in the region could be spared from its negative impact. It is important that all countries in the region stay on high alert, hold the issue of South China Sea firmly in our own hands, and continue the “dual track approach” to handle the issue of South China Sea. We should never allow it to become a wrestling ground for international politics.
A Sea of peace, friendship and cooperation serve the common interests of the countries and peoples in the region. Let us focus on cooperation, instead of conflicts, to build a closer China-ASEAN community of shared future.