The Stance of China on South China Sea (Part 2)
The DOC brooks no distortion
In midsummer 2015, the so-called South China Sea arbitration hearing that the Philippines had been clamoring for and brewing in the past two years finally started. Recently, the relevant arbitral tribunal held this so-called hearing in The Hague, Netherlands, where the Philippine side made irresponsible and derogatory remarks in its statements on the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed by relevant countries in 2002. Such remarks are indeed astonishing.
It is well known that in the late 1960s, a report of the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East stirred up the South China Sea. To vie for interests in oil resources, some countries laid territorial claims to China’ s Nansha Islands and illegally occupied some of the islands and reefs, giving rise to the South China Sea issue. For the purpose of managing disputes among the parties and maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea, China and ASEAN countries started their communication in the 1990s to jointly explore a dispute settlement approach suitable for the region. After a long period of consultation and mutual adaptation, China and the ten ASEAN countries officially signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 2002, which announced to the world that regional countries had an official document to follow when dealing with issues in the South China Sea. Since then, the South China Sea disputes gradually quieted down and peace and stability was maintained for over a decade. The DOC won the reputation of a “stability anchor.” Article 4 of the DOC stipulates that, “The Parties concerned undertake to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.” With eight more years of joint efforts, China and the ten ASEAN countries reached agreement on the Guidelines for the Implementation of the DOC in 2011, and started the historical process of fully and effectively implementing the DOC.
However, since taking office, the current government of the Philippines has drastically changed the country’s constructive attitude for good faith cooperation in the past, gone back on its commitment under the DOC and trampled on the common efforts of relevant countries in safeguarding peace and stability in the South China Sea. It meticulously planned an “arbitration” farce with the instigation and support of some country outside the region in an attempt to re-create disputes in the South China Sea. At the hearing, the Philippines’ counsel made unfounded statements that the DOC had never created any right or obligation and it was merely an expediency of mutual compromise, and that the path of seeking dispute settlement through friendly negotiation chosen by the parties through joint commitment was non-binding and had not achieved any anticipated result. Such statements can be traced back to the earlier “Memorial” filed by the Philippine side. One cannot help but ask, if a sovereign state can dishonor its commitment and willfully break its promise, if the DOC is indeed as meaningless as claimed by the Philippine side, then where does the international reputation of the Philippines, a sovereign state, rest upon? And where did the peace and stability in the South China Sea for over a decade come from?!
What is also astonishing is that the arbitral tribunal could not tell right from wrong and followed suit by belittling the DOC, the document signed by the governments of China and the ten ASEAN countries, in its ruling on the relevant jurisdiction issue. One cannot help but ask how can the choice of dispute settlement approach made by all the people of eleven countries, or nearly one third of the world’s population, be easily overturned by a word or two of the arbitral tribunal?! What’s more, the relevant ruling also gives a distorted interpretation of the relevant provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and arbitrarily interprets UNCLOS’ stipulation on the “obligation to exchange views” on disputes. That is an attempt to lower the threshold for the states parties to enter into the compulsory procedures and to pave the way for new farces planned by some countries. If the interpretation of the arbitral tribunal becomes a reality, countries will be constantly involved in various legal actions and the world will hardly have a quiet day. All little disputes between two states will inevitably lead to lawsuits. Such an act of arbitrarily expanding the power of oneself will never have the consent of sovereign states.
The international rule of law upholding equity and justice cannot be distorted by a farce, and the DOC shall not become a scrap of paper just because of a few unfounded remarks. All parties to the DOC have the responsibility and obligation to safeguard its validity and authority, so that it can continue to play the role of a “stability anchor.”