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Vessels fishing in the South China Sea. (Photo: MikeRussia CC BY-SA 3.0)

Rule of law needs to be respected in the South China Sea: experts

Click on the flag for more information about Viet Nam VIET NAM
Friday, September 15, 2017, 00:20 (GMT + 9)

Despite the shortcomings of the international legal framework regarding territorial disputes at sea, experts concur that international law plays a critical role in securing peace and stability at sea.

This was the unanimous agreement reached by international legal experts at a workshop entitled Navigating towards the free and opens seas of Asia: The role of international law in maintaining good order at sea, held in Hà Nội. The most important piece of international law in this area is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is hampered by generally inadequate language and a lack of enforcement mechanisms.

Given the recent escalation of tensions in the littoral Asia-Pacific, especially in the South China Sea, most countries seek to establish ‘good order’ in the regional seas via multi-lateral action such as the formalisation of ‘code of conducts.’ However, according to Abhijit Singh, Head of Maritime Policy Initiative, India’s Observer Research Foundation, the definition of ‘good order’ has been subject to different interpretations by different countries.

For some, ‘order’ means “co-operation between countries and agreement on the importance of consensus in regional governance” whereby issues of mutual concern like piracy, drugs smuggling, human trafficking and pollution are priorities, while areas of traditional disagreement are avoided in discussions. For others, ‘order’ is a result of orderly maritime conduct which in turns create trust between naval forces—a view that holds that recent aggressions shown by China in the South China Sea are problematic.


  Guest speakers at the conference titled “Navigating towards the free and open seas of Asia: The role of international law in maintaining good order at sea,” held yesterday in Hà Nội. — Photo courtesy of British Embassy in Việt Nam

Singh asserted that whether such ‘good order’ can exist in the South China Sea is entirely up to the degree of political trust between ASEAN and China.

Chair of the event, Nguyễn Vũ Tùng, Director of the Diplomatic Academy of Việt Nam, said that South China Sea disputes have shown the need to secure freedom of navigation.

Tùng said the promotion and maintenance of the rule of law at sea has seen notable triumphs in recent times, especially with last July’s tribunal ruling in favour of the Philippines against China in the South China Sea case I concerning the legality of China’s nine-dotted line claim.

“States may leverage that ruling as a good starting point in their interpretation of the Law of the Seas, as well as in the development of policies addressing sea disputes,” Tùng stressed.

Ass. Prof. Kentaro Nishimoto, from Japan’s Tohoku University, voiced his opinion that UNCLOS has clearly defined the entitlements and responsibilities of countries with regard to the seas. The convention provides for multiple dispute settlement mechanisms, he noted, making it a sturdy legal framework for policymaking.

H.E. Mr Kuno Umeda, Japanese Ambassador to Việt Nam, reiterated that order and stability in the region are indispensable to ensuring that the oceans “are ruled not by power, but by law,” and UNCLOS will be the basis on which such security can be achieved.

At the workshop, Giles Lever, the British Ambassador in Hà Nội, lauded the efforts of concerned parties in developing Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. He also reaffirmed the UK government’s commitment to maintaining security in the South China Sea in its capacity as a member of the UN Security Council, as well as developing opportunities for more defence co-operation with Việt Nam.

In his presentation, Dr Hà Anh Tuấn from the Diplomatic Academy of Việt Nam, focused on protecting marine resources through sustainable development in the South China Sea – an issue which he said had been much eclipsed by territorial conflicts but is no less deserving of attention.

Tuấn’s report painted a dire prospect for the South China Sea environment that provides livelihoods for 500 million people in China, Việt Nam, Malaysia, Philippines, and Indonesia. The drastic decline of seafood stock density in the region (up to 70-95 per cent compared to the levels in 1950) due to excessive fishing and pollution in the South China Sea is the highest amongst all measured seas in the world. Thus, he called for more regional legally binding mechanisms, conducting joint-study of fish stocks in the region, more robust efforts in sustainable fisheries, and the establishment of “joint-protected areas” in the South China Sea – all according to the terms of the UNCLOS.

The workshop was hosted by the Diplomatic Academy of Việt Nam, in conjunction with the Embassy of Japan in Việt Nam and the British Embassy in Hà Nội, attracting the participation of international law and international relations scholars from different countries.

This was the second time the open seas workshop has been held, with last year’s theme being “The Rule of Law and International Cooperation.” — VNS

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