MALAYSIA and Asean are perhaps best placed to negotiate on the South China Sea issue between Asean countries and China.
The recent ruling by the Arbitral Tribunal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in The Hague on a case brought by the Philippines against China must be viewed in the larger context of regional and global relations, mutual trust, peace and development.
The disagreement over the right to territory and resources in these waters concerns other countries as well in the region – Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei – that have competing claims with China over large areas of the sea.
Indeed, access to the South China Sea’s rich maritime resources, vast oil and gas reserves and, more broadly, the nearly US$5tril worth of shipborne trade through its waterways each year makes it a regional and global concern.
Undeniably, China and the United States, arguably the two strongest powers today from all standpoints, consider the South China Sea as being of critical strategic importance. Each doesn’t want the other to exert overarching influence or control over the South China Sea.
While China had refused to participate in the international court hearings and rejected outright its ruling, the Chinese government stated its willingness “to enter into provisional arrangements of a practical nature, including joint development in relevant maritime areas, in order to achieve win-win results and jointly maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr welcomed the court’s ruling in his country’s favour but called “on those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety.”
He further said: “Claimant countries might consider entering into arrangements such as joint exploration and utilisation of resources in disputed areas that do not prejudice the parties’ claims and delimitation of boundaries in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).”
The ruling in The Hague is regarded as legally binding but there is no mechanism to enforce it.
Malaysia’s long and mutually close and beneficial relations with China in terms of trade and cultural ties, and China being a major dialogue partner of Asean, make it eminently suited for both Malaysia and Asean to seriously engage in reaching a practical and workable agreement with China on the South China Sea issues.
It will be detrimental to all sides if the South China Sea dispute is allowed to further fester, lead to provocative and antagonistic rhetoric and posturing from within the region and beyond and, worse, result in conflict.
Clearly, inaction is not an option and time is of the essence. What can be of mutual gain to progress and prosper together must be the guiding principle going forward.
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