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Spratlys > News > English News > December 1999

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China warns outsiders to keep out of Spratlys dispute
8 Dec 1999
By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS - China, one of six claimants to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, has warned against any outside interference in what it says is a regional dispute.

The Spratlys, believed to be rich both in oil and gas, have been claimed in part or in whole by six countries in the region - China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. They consist of 21 islands and atolls, 50 submerged land spits and 28 partly submerged rocks and reefs, spread over 340,000 square miles.

China maintains that 400 of its scholars spent 10 years of research to ''prove historically'' that China ''discovered'' and developed the Spratly Islands. Ambassador Gao Feng of China told the UN General Assembly on Monday that Beijing's sovereignty over the island was based on ''historical facts . . . recognized by neighboring countries''.

China, Gao said, advocated a settlement of the dispute through peaceful means and was opposed to intervention from nations outside the region. In an apparent reference to possible UN intervention, ''parties'' which were not involved in the dispute should refrain from actions because it would only complicate the issue, Gao said.

The most contentious dispute is between Vietnam and China whose naval forces clashed in 1988 with the loss of more than 70 lives.

Pham Truong Giang of Vietnam told the General Assembly that the Chinese government had already banned fishing in the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands and the Paracels. His own country had sufficient historical and legal claims to the Spratly Islands and, as a coastal state, Vietnam had full sovereign rights to continental shelves, he said.

''Any counter-action would be a violation of its sovereign rights to those areas,'' he said, adding that the status quo should be maintained and that all interested parties refrain from acts that would aggravate the situation.

Last month, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) - of which Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam are members - approved a new draft code of conduct that requires rival claimants to refrain ''from taking action that would establish presence'' in the South China Sea. The code was initiated by the Philippines, which has sought Asean support to prevent ''Chinese expansionism in the Spratly Islands''.

In 1995 the Philippines was involved in a skirmish when its armed forces arrested Chinese fishermen and removed Chinese navigation markers from a disputed island.

According to some analysts, should China succeed in realizing the full extent of its claims to sovereignty, it could then extend its jurisdiction some 1,000 nautical miles from the mainland.

Ambassador Felipe Mabilangan of the Philippines told the General Assembly that as a ''claimant country'', the Philippines will continue to emphasize the importance of resolving these claims in the interest of peace and stability in the region. Mabilangan said his country reiterated the need for disputes to be settled peacefully, in accordance with the principles of international law, and for countries to continue to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities in the South China sea.

The Philippine envoy also complained that poaching and illegal fishing by foreign vessels has become rampant in the region, threatening the sustainability of his country's fishing sector. The Philippines' marginal fishermen and their communities were particularly affected, he said. Their catches had been shrinking and livelihoods threatened.

Ambassador Hasmy Agam of Malaysia said that as one of the claimant states, Malaysia wished to emphasize its opposition to the use of force to settle any dispute with regard to the South China Sea. Any action taken in the area should not violate the Asean declaration and should be in accordance with international law and the Convention of the Law of the Sea.

The Malaysian envoy said his country was encouraged that claimant states had accepted negotiations and dialogue. He called on them to adhere to those principles and to refrain from actions that could jeopardize peace and stability. Arguing that states that were not a party to the dispute should not interfere in resolving disputes, he said that all negotiations should be based on the Asean original code of conduct on the South China Sea.

One Asian diplomat told IPS that logically the dispute could go before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg, one of the institutions created by the UN Law of the Sea Convention. Addressing the General Assembly last week, the president of the tribunal, Chandrasekhara Rao, described it as a world court that is designed by the UN Convention to play a central role in the resolution of the law of the sea disputes.

(Inter Press Service)