Liang Feng (right), a local government official, helps a fisherman mend a fishing net at Zhaoshu Island in the South China Sea on June 13. Xinhua
BEIJING - With disputes in the South China Sea flaring up in recent weeks, July may be a critical month for discussions on the issue.
Following Vietnamese Vice-Foreign Minister Ho Xuan Son, who left Beijing in late June with an agreement emphasizing the importance of diplomatic negotiation in solving the China-Vietnam maritime dispute, Philippine President Benigno Aquino is scheduled to visit China in the near future, with the South China Sea issue high on his agenda, reported Philippine media.
As a prelude to the visit, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario will visit China on Thursday, which the Philippine media said "could help cool down the raging territorial dispute".
"We're hoping the visit of Secretary Del Rosario will help facilitate diplomatic means for resolving the problem," Abigail Valte, deputy presidential spokesperson, was quoted as saying by the Philippine-based Journal Online website last week.
Philippines officials say they expect to hold high-level talks with China in the coming months to maintain good relations, despite heated debate in recent weeks over disputes in the South China Sea.
According to Su Hao, director of the Asia-Pacific Research Center at China Foreign Affairs University, bilateral discussions, such as those recently conducted between China and Vietnam, may serve as a model in dealing with similar disputes.
"High-level communication helps eliminate misunderstandings and stabilizes the situation, which serves the fundamental interests of all," Su said.
"This is a good model which could be adapted in dealing with similar disputes," said Su.
Covering an area of more than 3.5 million square kilometers, the South China Sea is believed to hold vast deposits of oil and natural gas.
In a recent television interview, Yin Zhuo, a Chinese rear admiral, quoted a United Nations survey saying that the value of the oil and natural gas deposits in the area is equivalent to $20 trillion. The area is also home to major international sea lanes, through which 80 percent of the world's trade is shipped.
The South China Sea has been part of Chinese territory since ancient times, and China has managed and developed the islands for hundreds of years, according to Ma Zhengang, former president of the China Institute for International Studies, adding that there was no dissension from any country on China's sovereignty over the area until the 1970s.
A large number of multilateral documents and overseas encyclopedias have listed the South China Sea as the territory of China.
However, with surveys conducted in the 1960s showing the existence of huge oil and natural gas deposits and describing the region as the "second Gulf", "in the middle of the 1970s, Vietnam and the Philippines illegally occupied several islands and started exploring for oil and gas, which sparked the dispute", Ma said.
The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam lay claim to some of the islands and reefs in the area.
To solve the dispute, in 2002 China and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), with all related parties, in which they pledged to jointly safeguard regional stability, cooperate in the area and resolve disputes through peaceful talks between the direct claimants.
The declaration also said that related parties should exercise self-restraint and not undertake any activities that may complicate the situation.
But in recent years, some countries have continued to unilaterally conduct illegal oil and gas exploration in the area, leading to the recent tension, said experts.
Chu Hao, a researcher at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said: "China's increasing strength and the fact that the oil price is surging so fast means that countries are in a hurry as they will have no chance to claim their interests if they do not seize this 'last chance'."
As a result, the regional situation has become increasingly tense, with some parties exchanging harsh words with each other and holding military exercises.
According to Nazery Khalid, senior fellow with the Maritime Institute of Malaysia, the rising tension in the region does not benefit any side, and the best way to defuse disputes is diplomatic negotiation.
Quoted by the Beijing-based Global Times, Khalid said to solve the dispute it is vital for China to create a roadmap that first deals with issues which are less complicated and then gradually come to the more difficult issues.
For instance, the related parties could jointly conduct activities including pollution management and maritime biological surveys, even though they still hold differences on territorial issues, according to Khalid.
Experts also point out that intervention by the United States in the South China Sea issue has been a critical factor fueling the recent tension.
"Some Western experts have said that the US regards the issue as an important starting point for its 'back to Asia policy', while other countries that wish to confront China are pinning their hopes on US interference," Ma said.
Su Hao noted that the US has recently been taking a more prominent role in the issue.
At an ASEAN meeting held in Vietnam last year, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed that US has "a national interest in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea", which is a symbol "of the diplomatic battle that will define Asia for the next few decades", the Financial Times said.
The US also said on July 1 that the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) should discuss the dispute when it meets later this month in Bali, Indonesia.
Bonnie Glaser, an expert on Chinese security policy with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said: "In the run-up to the July ASEAN Regional Forum and the subsequent East Asia Summit in Bali, some of the claimants are competing to shape the discussion of South China Sea issues."
Chinese analysts said that China should not let the issue be generalized to include so-called freedom of navigation at sea, nor should it allow the issue to be internationalized.
At present, both ASEAN countries and China have agreed that freedom of navigation has not been disturbed in the South China Sea region.
"So-called freedom of navigation at sea is just an excuse. The underlying intention of the US is to generalize the issue and play it up," said Su.
Experts noted that there is a widespread misunderstanding about China's approach on solving the South China Sea issue that Beijing opposes any multilateral discussion.
"China insists on the bilateral approach that will solve the border issue directly with the neighboring country, which is the basis of negotiations. But it should actively participate in multilateral channels and resist any attempts at the generalization of South China Sea issues," Su said.
According to Yang Baoyun, a scholar at Peking University, on matters about individual islands, China is willing to sit down and hold bilateral talks. But China has also shown its sincerity to conduct multilateral talks, such as those that resulted in the signing of the DOC in 2002.
"But there should be no intervention from those outside the area," Yang said.
Experts also argue that what matters is to implement the agreements already reached between all parties, instead of making those negotiations just tactical ploys to win time for unilateral action.
Tan Yingzi in Washington contributed to this story.
(China Daily 07/06/2011 page11)