China’s 21st Century Maritime New Silk Road project may facilitate the resolution of longstanding maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Chinese media suggests.
These disputes involve at least six parties, particularly China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan.
Brunei has abandoned its territorial claim in the Spratlys and Malaysia has a relatively minor claim in the Spratlys. However Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines have made claims to major islands or island chains as well as maritime boundaries, while China and Taiwan maintain a similar claim to virtually the entire of South China Sea.
The areas of the disputes encompass rich fishing fields and suspected oil and natural gas reserves. In addition, more than half of the world’s merchant fleet tonnage passes through the Straits of Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok leading into the South China Sea.
The sides involved in the disputes have long been divided on whether the rights on territorial waters should be determined in accordance with international law. Several nations have insisted that the history of the region should also been taken into consideration.
However, Beijing’s nine-dash line territorial claim over the entire South China Sea has sparked major controversy from related parties and Beijing has grown more aggressive in broadening its military facilities to demonstrate control of key territories.
In January 2013, the Philippines requested the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to consider its disputes with Beijing. The Philippines filed an official suit in March 2014, and a supplementary document in March 2015, however Beijing expressed its doubts in the court’s jurisdiction and refused to accept arbitration, the report noted.
Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched his “charm offensive” in 2013 and announced Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative which aims to bolster multinational economic development in the region. The project consists of two parts: the land-based “Silk Road Economic Belt” plan and the sea-based “21st Century Maritime Silk Road”.
The project is “China’s mega external policy to guide its foreign relationships in the coming eight to ten years,” the report said, as ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is set to become the largest trade hub by 2020.
To the surprise of many, including China, the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) has brought together both China’s friends and “foes” with a total of 37 regional members and 20 non-regional members.
China’s “soft power” diplomacy has brought Vietnam and Malaysia closer, instead of focusing on longstanding maritime disputes with China, the nations have decided to join Beijing’s ambitious infrastructure projects.
It is expected that the Philippines will delay the arbitration and boost multilateral or bilateral contacts with Beijing following the presidential election of 2016, the report said.
The construction of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road won’t therefore escalate South China Sea disputes, but will instead provide a turning point for their resolution, according to the report.
On another front, the South China Sea is unlikely to become a flash point for conflict between China and the U.S., as there is no substantive division in their stance on the peace, freedom of commercial navigation, or intelligence gathering rights of carrier-based aircraft in South China Sea, the report said.