Third of three parts
Until my recent journey to China whipped up my interest in relations between our two countries, I was not particularly interested in the facts and issues of our government’s highly-publicized dispute over islands, islets, atolls and reefs in the South China Sea with the People’s Republic of China.
I was more interested as a journalist in how President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” or “rejuvenation” would match up against President Obama’s “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia. Why do they need two terms each for what they are trying to do? Is this the new normal in big-power politics?
Even so, I journeyed to China with the intent to raise a question or two about our bilateral relations, and the sea dispute – given the heavy emphasis that President Benigno Aquino 3rd has placed on it.
Background of the sea dispute
In researching and writing on the subject, I have found it helpful to telescope developments in the dispute with this calendar:
1. January 2013, the Philippines brought a case against China to the Arbitral Tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the law of the Sea.
2. On March 30, 2014, our Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) announced that it submitted its Memorial to the Arbitral Tribunal that is hearing the case.
3. On April 3, 20 14, the Chinese Embassy in Manila, through its spokesperson Mr. Zhang Hua, released a position paper that spells out clearly China’s position on its South China Sea dispute with the Philippines. (for readers who want to delve deeper into the issue, here’s a link to the position paper — http://www.philstar.com/headlines/2014/04/03/1308385/chinas-position-paper-sea-disputes-philippines —
which was posted by the Philippine Star on its website back in April this year.)
I’ve been seeking a comparable statement on the Philippine position on the South China Sea dispute, but so far, my research has yielded no results. We have only press releases about the filing of the case and the submission of the memorial.
The Chinese embassy position paper is important and significant, because it summarizes the broad background of the dispute, its history, the legal issues involved, and the commitments of both sides to peaceably settle the dispute.
China’s position paper
Because of the light it sheds on China’s thinking on the sea dispute, I summarize below in abbreviated form the key points discussed by Mr. Zhang in the position paper:
1. The Philippines’ initiation of and push for international arbitration has undermined China-Philippines relations.
Under normal circumstances, submission of a dispute to international arbitration requires an agreement reached between the two parties concerned. Yet, the Philippine side failed to notify the Chinese side, not to mention seeking China’s consent, before it actually initiated the arbitration.
2. Why does China not accept the arbitration?
First, China is committed to resolving its disputes with the Philippines through bilateral negotiations.
Second, China’s refusal to accept the arbitration is an exercise of its right under international law. According to international law, China has every right not to accept the arbitration initiated by the Philippines.
The Philippines’ initiation of arbitration is based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, the framework of the Convention is not applicable to all maritime issues. First, the disputes between China and the Philippines are principally territorial disputes over islands, which are not covered by the Convention.
Third, a resort to arbitration does not meet people’s expectations for friendship in both China and the Philippines. Territorial and maritime disputes are not the entirety of the China-Philippines relationship.
3. It is China’s sincere wish that the disputes between China and the Philippines will be settled through bilateral negotiations.
China has long exercised sovereignty over the Nansha Islands. After the Second World War, China recovered the Nansha Islands occupied by Japanese aggressors in 1946 and took a series of steps to confirm and reaffirm its sovereignty over the Nansha Islands. At that time, the Philippines, an independent country already, made no objection to China’s moves.
4. China’s Basic Position on the Issue of the South China Sea
The core of the South China Sea issue rests with the territorial disputes on islands and reefs, and overlapping claims on maritime rights and interests in waters of the South China Sea, which are caused by the illegal occupation of some islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Islands by some coastal countries. Formed in the long historic course, China’s sovereignty and relevant rights in the South China Sea have solid historic and legal basis, and have been upheld by successive Chinese governments.
China has always adhered to resolving relevant disputes with sovereign states directly concerned, including the Philippines, through consultations and negotiations. This has been the consistent position of the Chinese side, and conforms to the consensus that China and ASEAN countries reached in the Declaration of Conduct of Parties (DOC).
5. The Nature of China-Philippines Disputes in the South China Sea
As for what has happened in the South China Sea in recent years, all were provoked by the Philippines. Take the 2012 incident at Huangyan Island as an example, the Philippines harassed unarmed Chinese fishermen with a Navy ship around China’s Huangyan Island, and forced them to take off clothes and stand exposed under the scorching sun. Do you think it is China that bullies the Philippines? Another example is the Ren’ai Reef. A Philippine navy ship was “grounded” off the reef in 1999, over which the Chinese side has never stopped making representations.
6. The Consensus between China and the Philippines on the South China Sea Issue
In 2002, China and the ASEAN countries including the Philippines signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), and the Section 4 stipulates that the parties concerned should 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 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
7. Freedom and Safety of Navigation
For a long time, there has been no problem of freedom and safety of navigation in the South China Sea. Freedom and safety of navigation in the South China Sea has not been affected by disputes of Nansha Islands, nor will there be any problem in the future.
8. China is Committed to a South China Sea of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation
For a long time, the Chinese side has stayed committed to implementing the DOC together with parties concerned to safeguard peace and stability of the South China Sea.”
Consistent policy from party to government to academe
At the luncheon tendered our group by Mr Zhang Xuyi, deputy director-general of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, we heard for ourselves how consistently the government’s official position on issues is maintained in china.
The international department of the party, we learned, is a kind of foreign ministry in its own right. Its view and presentation of policy is consistent with that of the foreign policy bureaucracy. There is consistency in language and tone.
The deputy director-general was gracious in hearing us all out, and in patiently answering our questions on various matters of policy, and on the sea dispute.
In his remarks, he provided us with a broad perspective on China’s foreign policy and on the importance it attaches to Philipine-China relations.
He summarized China’s policy towards its ASEAN neighbors as “friendship, friendship and friendship.”
To my question on China’s view of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which both China and the Philippines are signatory, he emphasized that UNCLOS came into being only in 1984, whereas our relationship and china’s sovereignty over the islands began way, way back in history.
He also addressed a question raised by one group member whether China’s commitment today to the rule of law, includes also international law. He replied that China attaches much importance to its international obligations.
All in all, Mr Zhang stressed remarkably similar points covered by the Chinese embassy paper released in April this year. Interestingly, both the deputy director-general and the embassy spokesman are surnamed Zhang.
We discovered that the official policy line is faithfully adhered to from one government bureau to another, from President Xi to lower civil servants, from the party to the bureaucracy, from government to academe.