By Jin Yongming (China Daily)
The Western media tend to sensationalize any dispute between China and its neighboring countries, especially if it could intensify the situation in the South China Sea. No wonder, before the upcoming APEC and East Asia summits the Western media have been busy reporting that Vietnam has invited foreign oil companies to exploit the oilfields in the disputed area, which is claimed by China and Vietnam both, and create a storm over the analysis of a Hanoi-based researcher that “territorial tensions in the South China Sea could explode into full-scale conflicts”.
Vietnam’s move has undoubtedly cast a shadow on the joint agreement signed between Beijing and Hanoi last month. This is something which China is strongly opposed to. But it would be wrong to say that Vietnam actually tried to win time to exploit the oilfields and develop its military.
People with diverse views exist in almost every country, and Vietnam is no exception. From its government to its academia, Vietnam has people with tough as well as moderate views on China. Therefore, one scholar’s views cannot represent that of the country.
In the joint agreement, both countries have agreed on “peaceful settlement” of the South China Sea disputes. China firmly believes in resolving maritime disputes through peaceful means, including “shelving disputes and seeking common development”, because it has successfully resolved land border disputes with 12 neighboring countries through negotiations and friendly consultations.
The peaceful settlement of the South China Sea disputes will surely come with hardship, but it is worth striving for. The joint agreement does not necessarily mean that China and Vietnam will be trouble-free. On the contrary, frictions will arise. What both countries should do is to keep the frictions under control.
If Vietnam continues to invite foreign companies to exploit the disputed area, China can do even more to invite other companies to jointly exploit the resources or develop the area alone. Actually, China has large-drilling platforms and has the full capacity to exploit the disputed area. But China doesn’t want to do so and instead is exercising great restraint to safeguard peace in the region.
If Vietnam really eats its words and doesn’t follow the joint agreement, it stands to lose its standing on the international stage and no country will cooperate with and trust it, which is not something it can afford.
The China-Vietnam agreements, aimed at advancing bilateral cooperation on some less sensitive maritime issues to explore interim and temporary solutions and then foster conditions necessary for resolving bilateral disagreements, serve not only bilateral interests but also the welfare of other countries. Both countries should try to find ways to carry out the principles in the agreement, which will have a far-reaching impact on the region.
China and Vietnam have disputes over the South China Sea, and it will be of mutual benefit for both to respect history, each other’s stands and interests, and avoid any activity that can complicate and escalate the disputes.
For that purpose, China and Vietnam should agree to step up negotiations on maritime issues, seek some interim and temporary solutions, and start bilateral cooperation in less sensitive fields such as marine environment protection, marine scientific research, and marine rescue and disaster mitigation to create conditions necessary to arrive at a final solution and for the joint development of marine resources in the disputed area.
The China-Vietnam agreements on maritime issues lay a political ground on which both sides can hold dialogues and consultations to address the bilateral disputes. In fact, it is difficult to resolve their disagreements by using international laws, because neither side has agreed to submit to the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in bilateral contentious issues under Article 36 of the Statute of the ICJ.
Besides, China made a statutory declaration on Aug 25, 2006, to the UN secretary-general that it does not accept arbitration in maritime border disputes. With the possibility of resolving the disputes through the ICJ being ruled out, the China-Vietnam agreements provide a political framework for negotiations and friendly consultations.
If China and Vietnam succeed in resolving their maritime disputes by holding bilateral dialogues and consultations on an equal footing, exploring interim solutions and seeking joint development, their example will offer other countries some guidance in resolving similar maritime disputes. More importantly, it will demonstrate that concerted efforts are of vital importance in handling contentious issues and excluding intervention from “outsiders”.
The bilateral agreements reached between China and Vietnam on maritime issues is significant for regional peace and stability and offers a solution to other countries, which the international community deserves to support instead of using it to sow discord.
Besides, both sides should make full use of the established platforms, including regular meetings that are held twice a year between the heads of the two countries’ negotiation delegations and the hotline of the two governments. They could dig into maritime cooperation in the less sensitive areas as mentioned above, too, before touching upon the issue of joint development of maritime resources.
Moreover, the two countries should be cautious against media sensationalism and prevent any mishandling of the South China Sea disputes from hindering joint efforts aimed at eliminating misunderstanding and facilitating mutual trust.
China has been making great efforts to resolve the disputes peacefully, and Vietnam should do the same.
The author is a law scholar with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and the Academy of Ocean of China.
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