Saturday, March 29, 2014

China likely to assert historical claims in maritime disputes, says Lee Kuan Yew


March 29

SINGAPORE — A rising China will not allow its sea boundaries to be decided by external parties and will assert its position by claiming historical rights to disputed waters in the South China Sea, says former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

“It is naive to believe that a strong China will accept the conventional definition of what parts of the sea around it are under its jurisdiction,”
wrote Mr Lee in an article in the April issue of Forbes magazine.

“This should come as no surprise, but it has been uncomfortable for some of China’s neighbours and other stakeholders, including the US.”

China is locked in long-standing territorial and maritime disputes with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea.

The Philippines has initiated international arbitration through the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which China reiterated this week it would not take part in.

Mr Lee noted that if both countries could not reach an agreement on the territorial dispute, the ideal solution would be to resolve it based on international law and legal principles — including UNCLOS — established in many other such cases.

But he questioned if this could be done through a juridical platform, such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ). “Keep in mind that major powers, including China and the US, don’t generally submit to the jurisdiction of the ICJ or other such forums,” wrote Mr Lee in the article titled China Unfettered: Redefining The Rules Of The Seas.

“A resurgent China isn’t going to allow its sea boundaries to once again be decided by external parties,”
he added. “Therefore, I don’t believe the Chinese will submit their claims, which are based primarily on China’s historical presence in these waters, to be decided by rules that were defined at a time when China was weak.

“And China has judged that the US won’t risk its present good relations with China over a dispute between the Philippines and China.

Mr Lee noted that there was more at stake in the South China Sea than oil and gas or fish. “China sees the South China Sea as one of its key interests. A rising China is asserting its position by claiming historical rights to these waters. And the disputes, which arise from claims based on different principles, are unlikely to be resolved.”

As the South China Sea is a vital sea line of communications with one-third of the world’s trade passing through it, other countries have a key interest in ensuring the freedom of navigation and overflight as well as the peaceful management of disputes.

Apart from preventing mishaps and incidents, a framework to manage the different interests should therefore be established, said Mr Lee.

He added that China’s reliance on historical claims in the South China Sea makes it important to consider what its fleets did in the past.

Mr Lee noted that more than 600 years ago, Emperor Zhu Di of the Ming Dynasty had sent out a large fleet of trading ships to explore and trade with the rest of the world. The seven westward expeditions led by Grand Eunuch Zheng He over nearly three decades (1405-33) were unprecedented in size and range, spanning the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, and reaching as far as the east coast of Africa.

The ships which sailed on these expeditions were more than 120m in length, archaeological evidence showed, many times the size of those used by Christopher Columbus to sail across the Atlantic to the Americas.

Mr Lee said these expeditions by China amply demonstrated the power and wealth of the Ming Dynasty.

“More important, they left a lasting impact on the countries visited: Numerous masjids (mosques) in the region are named after Zheng He, commemorating his contributions to the local communities,” wrote Mr Lee.

“If historical claims can define jurisdiction
over waters and oceans, the Chinese can point to the fact that 600 years ago, they sailed these waters unchallenged.”

[Most of the comments on this article on the news site did not grasp the point of the article. It is not whether China is justified to make her claims. It is about how she will justify her claims to herself, to her citizenry, and to others, allies or opponents. It is about how the conflict in the South China Sea is intractable because of incompatible basis of claims, and incompatible worldviews.]

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