NST Leader: Troubled waters

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It is true that China is a claimant to the South China Sea. So are Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines. REUTERS

INTERNATIONAL law is there for a reason. To ensure that there is law and order among a comity of nations. What’s more if the countries are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) 1982. One country cannot, arbitrarily, claim the whole of the sea because it has a certain nomenclature.

If this is so — and UNCLOS is very clear that it is not so — then every body of water that bears a certain country’s name will belong to that country.

“Ridiculous” was the response of Malaysia’s foreign minister, Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, to the Chinese claim.

Well put minister, we say. Just because a nation’s trawler illegally fished in the sea before, it doesn’t mean the sea belongs to it.

It is true that China is a claimant to the South China Sea. So are Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines.

According to Associate Professor Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli from the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia, the UNCLOS is clear. Under Article 3 of UNCLOS, a coastal state — Malaysia is one — may claim up to 12 nautical miles (about 22km) of territorial sea from the baseline of the coastal state.

It has sovereignty over this body of water, including the seabed. Beyond this, the coastal state has sovereign rights up to 200 nautical miles (about 370km) of what is called the exclusive economic zone or EEZ.

The EEZ, however, doesn’t include the seabed otherwise termed the continental shelf. A coastal state can claim up to 200 nautical miles of the continental shelf from its baseline.

Notwithstanding this, China is claiming almost the whole of the South China Sea through what it calls a “nine-dash line”.

A vague claim based on a Chinese-drawn map of 1940 laying claim to islands once under Japanese occupation. And it is doing it aggressively too. China has also placed troops on several islands.

Little wonder, the Philippines took its dispute with China to arbitration in 2016. The arbitrators ruled in favour of the Philippines, stating that China’s nine-dash lines are not valid under international law.

China, which was not a party to the 2016 arbitration, has denounced the ruling. What’s worse, it is continuing to assert its claim. And aggressively, too. The most recent being a Chinese coastguard vessel’s incursion into Indonesian waters at the Natunas.

Is China pursuing what People’s Liberation Army’s Major General Zhang Zhaozhong once described as a South China Sea “cabbage strategy” — one that wraps the entire marine area with vessels and warships and what have you in concentric circles like the vegetable does its leaves? Hazmi suggests a strategy to blunt this China game plan.

Aseanmember countries with claims to the South China Sea must not accede to bilateral negotiations with China.

One is never as strong as four. Having acknowledged the overlapping claims between them, the Asean four — Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines — should meet China as one. Thus can the South China Sea be made less troubling.




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