An open letter to the citizens and governments of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam regarding the sovereignty dispute in the South China Sea(1)
From the South East Asian Sea Foundation(2) – http://www.seasfoundation.org
The South China Sea is bordered by the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Vietnam and China. This Sea is vital to these countries’ economies, transportation and security. In the wider context, the South China Sea is one of the most important maritime routes in the world; it is vital to the economic prosperity of South East Asia, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and all important trading nations. Therefore, the South China Sea dispute is a concern to us all.Among the parties to the dispute, China stands out as by far the biggest threat to all countries. Firstly, while most conflicting claims of sovereignty are over small islands, reefs and rocks, China is unique in claiming virtually the whole South China Sea. Secondly, China’s military is the largest by far and is also undergoing the fastest build-up in the region. Thirdly, China is unique among the protagonists in having a history of using force to seize disputed islands from other nations.
China’s claim in the South China Sea is comparable to a claim by one person to all the oxygen in the air. Not only is this claim illegal and unfair, but if it is realized, South East Asia can be dominated and nations that need to traverse through the South China Sea can be choked in times of conflict.
It is therefore vital that the South China Sea is not turned into China’s territory or into China’s lake. The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Vietnam, ASEAN, China and all nations in the world have rights in this international Sea according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Vietnam, ASEAN and other concerned nations must work together to safeguard these rights against China’s unjust ambitions.
Map caption: Illustration of the allocation of exclusive economic zones based on UNCLOS. Continental shelves are allocated based on similar principles. China’s claim is shown for contrast. The 12-nautical-mile territorial waters of the Paracels, Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal are excluded from this allocation, pending a settlement of the sovereignty disputes over these features.
We propose that the citizens and governments of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam put aside differences and work together towards a solution based on the following principles, which are based on UNCLOS. We call on other concerned nations promote and support such a solution.
1. The South China Sea features, e.g., islands, reefs and rocks, that are not naturally above high tide are not entitled to territorial waters, exclusive economic zones or continental shelf.
2. Each disputed feature that is naturally above high tide is entitled to 12 nautical miles of territorial waters but no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf beyond 12 nautical miles. The country that is eventually deemed to have sovereignty over a disputed feature shall also have sovereignty over the territorial waters around that feature but cannot use it to claim an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf beyond 12 nautical miles.
3. The area of the South China Sea outside the territorial waters of the disputed features shall be allocated as territorial waters (subject to UNCLOS Part II), exclusive economic zones (subject to UNCLOS Part V) and continental shelf (subject to UNCLOS Part VI) belonging to China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam.
4. The baselines used in the above allocation shall conform to UNCLOS (Articles 5, 6, 7 and, in the case of the Philippines and Indonesia only, Article 47).
5. Where there are disputes due to overlapping maritime zones, the disputes shall be resolved equitably and with results consistent with international law.
6. The rights of other nations as granted by UNCLOS shall be guaranteed.
The disputed features, namely, the Spratlys, the Paracels and Scarborough Shoal are not entitled to exclusive economic zones or continental shelf. Thus, the allocation of exclusive economic zones and continental shelf does not depend on the question of sovereignty over the disputed features, and this allocation can be achieved even while the question of sovereignty is unresolved. This will safeguard the rights and security of the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Vietnam and of all other nations.
If the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam continue to pursue their individual claims without support from each other or from the international community, the South China Sea will eventually be turned into China’s territory or, at least, China’s lake. The best chance these countries have to prevent this is by speaking with a common voice on the international stage, working together on the basis of fairness for all and in accordance with UNCLOS, supporting each other, and being supported by the international community.
(1) This article was published on The Manila Times, Monday 17 November, 2008.
(2) The South East Asian Sea Foundation is a private organization funded by ASEAN nationals around the world. The view expressed herein should not be taken in any way to reflect the official opinion of ASEAN countries.