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Legal Imbroglio in the South China Sea

Editor: Li Kun 丨CCTV.com

06-02-2016 18:36 BJT

By Mathew Maavak, a doctoral student in Security Foresight at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM)

The rhetorical war between China and the United States over the South China Sea dispute is increasing in magnitude. Washington has wasted no time to sponsor seminars and think tanks to drive a wedge between Beijing and other claimant nations in the region. 

Ambitious young ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) scholars and diplomats have been recruited for study fellowships and stints at prestigious American universities.

Vietnam is the suitor du jour in America's new game, called the "Asia Pivot." While Beijing is building infrastructure in Vietnam, Washington has offered weapons to Hanoi, a former enemy at war. They had fought in what was called the Vietnam War from the 1960s to the early 1970s.

Despite Chinese businesses having poured in investments worth $US7.9 billion in 2014 alone, the US has only offered to clean up chemically contaminated parts of the country some 40 years after the Vietnam War ended.

Yesterday's bitter enemies have become today's strategic partners. Yet history cannot be easily brushed aside, even if the United Nations 5-member temporary Court of Arbitration in The Hague rules in favor of the Philippines over its claims in the South China Sea. The ruling is expected to be announced this summer.

Why Extra-Regional Arbitration May Backfire

Manila's resort to The Hague may backfire for all claimants in the region, since it opens up a few legal Pandora's Boxes in Beijing's favor.

A shrewd legal expert on territorial claims and international law can punch holes once the UN and US are brought into the picture.

The US, the UN General Assembly, or any other permanent member of the UN Security Council can not contest the validity of the 11-dash line that was unveiled on Dec 1, 1947 by the Republic of China – itself a permanent council member at the time.

Without a proper de jure challenge, "the international community" – a term Washington invokes all too often – seems to have proffered at least de facto recognition over China's 1947 claims.

Many contested islands in the South China Sea, namely the Paracels, Pratas and Spratly, were reclaimed by the Republic of China's naval forces in the immediate aftermath of Japan’s surrender in WWII.

No disputes have arisen until Vietnam lodged a counter-claim in 1951, but this was blunted by Beijing's concession of Bach Long Vi island to Hanoi in 1957. 

Beijing's maritime claims were tempered by the Chinese government at that time, which had endorsed China's new 9-dash line.

For the next two decades, the status of contested islands slipped into limbo, since Washington was too busy fighting the Vietnamese.

Later it was trying to draw closer the People's Republic of China — starting in the late US President Richard Nixon's 1971 visit to Beijing. The geo-political pendulum had swung in Beijing's direction. Accordingly, there was no way Washington was going to honor Hanoi's claims. 

Being the gracious loser, Washington had refused to engage in diplomatic relations with Hanoi from the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 until 1995.

Washington was also rousing international opinions, including those of ASEAN nations in favor of the genocidal Pol Pot regime in Cambodia.

More importantly in the context of the South China Sea, how did the US treat Vietnamese claims until 1995? Why is Washington offering arms and regional naval support, instead of paying war reparations to help future generations of Vietnamese babies, who may likely suffer from the after-effects of napalm?

Why are the islands in the South China Sea so important to the US? Is it just an attempt to exploit Hanoi to embolden its Pivot to Asia strategy?

Mathew Maavak, a doctoral student in Security Foresight at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM)

( The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Panview or CCTV.com. )



Panview offers a new window of understanding the world as well as China through the views, opinions, and analysis of experts. We also welcome outside submissions, so feel free to send in your own editorials to "globalopinion@vip.cntv.cn" for consideration.

Panview offers an alternative angle on China and the rest of the world through the analyses and opinions of experts. We also welcome outside submissions, so feel free to send in your own editorials to "globalopinion@vip.cntv.cn" for consideration.


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