Op-Ed Contributors

No dispute over these waters

By Jiang He (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-08-04 09:27
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In the quest to establish their control over the waters of South China Sea, some countries are strengthening their navies and inviting foreign enterprises to explore and exploit oil and gas around Nansha Islands, raising tensions in the region. But China has made it more than clear it will not tolerate any violation of its territorial integrity or compromise its sovereignty.

Some Southeast Asian countries are engaged in the power game in the South China Sea because they want to seize more ocean resources. So, the problem cannot be solved without settling the disputes over the sovereignty of the Nansha Islands.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, all contracting parties were asked to submit the delineation of their continental shelf to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf before May 13, 2009. This let loose a "blue enclosure movement" around the world in late 2008 and early 2009, and prompted several Southeast Asian countries around the South China Sea to lay claim on China's Nansha Islands. Their aim was to set a so-called legal basis for delimiting exclusive economic zones and the outer limits of their continental shelf.

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The industrialization race has made many developing countries expedite their efforts to exploit sea resources. The oil and gas reserves around the Nansha Islands account for half of the entire energy reserves in the South China Sea region. Therefore, by claiming sovereignty over the Nansha Islands, they are trying to lay their hands on a "gold mine".

China's sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and the waters around them is indisputable, and is based on the prior occupation principle of the international law. China's sovereignty over the Nansha Islands is rooted in history, too. If China took control of the islands before other countries laid claim on them, then in accordance with the effective governance principle, its sovereignty is indisputable.

The traditional ways a country could acquire a territory include occupation, natural operations, conquest and annexation. The new ways include self-determination of people and referendum.

The occupation principle applicable to China's sovereignty over the Nansha Islands is determined by international law. It has two essential elements: a target that is terra nullius (no man's land) and an action that amounts to effective occupation. Effective occupation refers to an occupying country's effective exercise of sovereign rights, which usually evolves into Uti possidetis juris (a principle of international law that says newly formed states should have same borders that they had before their independence) and effectivities.

China was the first country to discover, name, develop, conduct economic activities and exercise jurisdiction over the Nansha Islands. Chinese people discovered the Nansha Islands during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), that is, more than 2,000 years ago. The islands were thus terra nullius before Chinese people discovered them.

The Nansha Islands came under China's jurisdiction during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). They became part of China "more conscientiously" during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties when the countries' naval forces started patrolling the waters around them. Chinese started developing the islands and fishing off their coasts during the Ming Dynasty. During the Qing Dynasty, the Chinese government marked the Nansha Islands on the authoritative maps and established control over them. All these facts are in line with the requirements of the occupation principle.

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