‘Only Asean can challenge Beijing on South China Sea’

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New Delhi, Oct 3 (IANS) Only the countries of the Asean by showing a united front can challenge Beijing on its claims over the South China Sea, an expert on the issue said at a seminar here on Monday.

“If anybody can challenge China, it is the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations),” said Baladas Ghoshal, Secretary General of the Society for Indian Ocean Studies (SIOS), which organised the seminar on “South China Sea Imbroglio: Looking for a Solution — Legal and Political”.

“China has to live with these countries,” Ghoshal said.

An international arbitration tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague ruled on July 12 that China violated the Philippines’ rights in the South China Sea, one of the busiest commercial shipping routes in the world.

The court accused China of interfering with the Philippines’ fishing and petroleum exploration, building artificial islands in the waters and failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone.

The tribunal held that fishermen from the Philippines had traditional fishing rights in Scarborough shoal in the South China Sea and that China had interfered with these rights by restricting their access.

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The court held that Chinese law enforcement vessels unlawfully created a serious risk of collision when they physically obstructed the Philippine vessels in the region.

China is locked in disputes with other countries of the region over the Spratly and Paracel groups of islands in the South China Sea.

While the other claimants over the Spratly islands are Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, the Paracel islands are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

The most heavily contested are the Spratlys, a group of 14 islands, islets and cays and more than 100 reefs that are strategically located.

Following the ruling, India said that it supported freedom of navigation and overflight, and unimpeded commerce, based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos).

“India believes that states should resolve disputes through peaceful means without threat or use of force and exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that could complicate or escalate disputes affecting peace and stability,” the government said in a statement.

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At Monday’s seminar, Ghoshal said that for Asean to challenge China, the members states of the regional bloc should show a “united front”.

“In 1995, Asean countries showed unity and the foreign ministers issued a statement expressing concern over the South China Sea issue,” he recalled.

He, however, noted that the Asean countries have not always taken a position of unity on some other key issues like the East Timor problem and the Asian economic crisis.

“Asean should tell China that if you do not solve the issue, we will go to the US,” Ghoshal said.

“Asean’s moment of truth has arrived.”

According to Dung Pham Lan, Professor of International Law at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, some countries, including India, are staying silent on the issue.

“But being silent is also a positive sign. At least don’t say anything against the judgement,” she said.

Lan said that the Asean countries admired India for the way it handled maritime issues with its neighbours, like in the case of Bangladesh.

“We look forward to support from other countries, including India,” she added.

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According to V.G. Hegde, Professor of International Law at the Jawaharlal Naehru University, it took just two-and-half years for the international arbitration tribunal to come up with the ruling because the Philippines put up a good argument.

“The Philippines argued whether in this case historic rights will apply or the convention (Unclos) will apply,” he said.

“The Philippines got it correct. They had all the procedural safeguards in place.”

Hegde was of the view that though China did not attend the tribunal’s hearing, it was only posturing now and would eventually have to follow the ruling.

“Unclos says that even if one party does not attend, the judgement has to be implemented,” he said.

Director of the Carnegie India think tank C. Rajamohan observed that there was always a superior authority to implement domestic laws but the same was not the case with the international legal system.

“Despite the UN and many other multilateral systems in place, no one can restrain the actions of big powers,” he said.



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