International Ties

US should respect law of sea

By Zhang Tuosheng (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-11-26 08:00
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The possibility of military intervention by the United States and Japan in Taiwan Straits in case "Taiwan independence" forces take extreme action has long been China's top maritime concern. Disputes with neighboring countries over territorial claims and its interests in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, too, have been a major maritime concern for China.

China's maritime disputes with its neighbors range from claims over islands and waters to claims over exclusive economic zones, continental shelves and underwater resources. The settlement of these issues remains difficult because of their relevance to state sovereignty, territorial integrity and national feelings, as well as some complicated historical and practical factors.

Disputes in the South China Sea have intensified recently, as indicated by frictions between China, and Vietnam and the Philippines. The collision between a Chinese fishing boat and two Japan Coast Guard vessels in the waters off China's Diaoyu Islands in September snowballed into a serious crisis between China and Japan.

China has long held that territorial disputes with neighboring countries should be settled through peaceful dialogue free from outside intervention. And China has always advocated that disputing countries should shelve their differences and take measures to enhance mutual trust if they cannot resolve the disputes immediately.

But against all maritime norms, the United States has been carrying out surveillance in the waters off China's coast, citing "freedom of navigation" as an excuse. The US' activities have got closer to China's land area and increased in frequency in recent years, causing grave concern.

By indulging in such acts, Washington is contravening its commitment to work with Beijing to build a constructive and all-round Sino-US relationship and going back on its promise to take practical measures to jointly meet the common challenges.

The US' surveillances have endangered China's national security and violated its maritime rights and interests. Washington's actions have sent negative signals and indicate that it still sees Beijing as a major rival or potential adversary and could become the main source of maritime conflicts between China and the US.

The surveillances are detrimental to the development of military ties between Beijing and Washington, too, and thwart the two sides' efforts to build much-needed mutual strategic trust.

China has unwaveringly adhered to the "free navigation" principle. But it is firmly opposed to the abuse of the principle by the US for conducting unrestrained military surveillance in China's waters.

Since the establishment of a Sino-US maritime military security consultation in 1998, the US has been demanding that the two countries lay down a common code of conduct on maritime activities. But it has turned a blind eye to China's maritime concerns. To help settle the dispute once and for all, the US should reduce its antagonistic military surveillances gradually and end it completely before holding discussions with China on the adoption of a common code of conduct at sea.

The rising pace of globalization has made China increasingly dependent on international maritime passages for its modernization drive, especially for its economic development. Chinese vessels can sail to the Middle East and Africa only through the Asia-Pacific region.

But military conflicts in the region, along with terrorist attacks, rampant piracy and natural disasters pose a threat to free navigation and endanger China's maritime security and interests. Therefore, the new challenge for China is to develop a navigation capability proportional to its status and responsibility as a major world power.

China is going all out to build its maritime capability, which is expected to be a lengthy process, compatible with the country's efforts to develop from a land power into a sea power. It has always opposed the "gunboat policy" in all its forms and will never embark on the path of maritime expansion as some other powers have done in the past.

Beijing wants to strengthen its maritime capability to safeguard the safety of its shipping channels and to conduct salvage and relief operations. The participation of its navy in international anti-piracy operations in the waters off Somalia since last year has been an important step toward achieving that goal.

But some countries are trying to confine China's navy to a chain of islets for groundless and impractical reasons. China has the right to send its navy farther into the ocean, and its actions conform to international law.

Facing ever-increasing maritime security threats, China is willing to undertake more responsibilities and obligations in accordance with international laws and rules. It is also willing to work with the international community to push for the adoption and implementation of non-proliferation measures at sea to safeguard fragile marine ecology and prevent pollution.

China understands the eagerness of the US and other countries to make it a party to the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). But the PSI-advocated "maritime interception" runs counter to prevailing international laws and, hence, should be revised.

More importantly, the US should stop surveillance in the waters off China's coast and free the seas of conflicts to facilitate mutual development and mutual benefit.

The author is a research fellow with the China International Strategy Research Fund.

(China Daily 11/26/2010 page9)