(Brussels, June 21)
Your Excellency Mr. Marc Otte, Director General of the Egmont Institute,
Ladies and gentlemen,
First of all, please allow me to welcome you all to today's round table discussion on behalf of the Chinese Embassy in Belgium. We are honored to have with us two experts who flied all the way from China to Belgium particularly for today's meeting on the South China Sea Issue. They are: Mr. Ruan Zongze, Executive Vice President and senior research fellow of China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), and Mr. Zhu Feng, Executive Director of China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University. Both of them are prominent and influential experts in China. Hopefully, their presentation will help you know more about the South China Sea issue. And you will be welcome to take part in the Q&A session afterwards.
The theme for today's round table is "the South China Sea Issue: History, Law and Geopolitics". Now I'd like to share my observations in three points.
First, to view the South China Sea issue from the perspective of history. South China Sea islands have been China's territory since ancient times. In the ancient history in Asia-Pacific region, China had the most advanced science and technology. About one thousand years ago, Chinese invented compass, and mastered the technology of navigation. At the meantime, China's east costal areas were long featured by large population and relatively scarce arable land. As fishing became an important supplement to Chinese people's food resources, navigation became a practical need. Since there were both the practical need and the mastership of technology, the Chinese began navigation activities quite early in history. And that was how China became the first country in history to discover, name and exercise jurisdiction over the islands, which was way earlier than the surrounding countries. China has abundant historic records about the South China Sea islands as atlases, navigation logs, cadastres, etc.
Second, to view the South China Sea issue from the perspective of law. To discover, name and exercise jurisdiction already constitute territorial acquisition according to international law. In 1947, the Chinese government officially published a chart of its islands in the South China Sea, as well as the Chinese official map which includes South China Sea islands, thus declared officially to the world China's sovereignty over these islands. At that moment and for decades, no country in the world, including surrounding countries, made any kind of objections. In 1958, the Chinese government issued Declaration on Territorial Sea, which reiterates China's sovereignty over the South China Sea islands. The Vietnam government even expressed recognition to China's declaration via a diplomatic verbal note.
As for the Philippines, after the Spanish-American War in 1898, the US took over the Philippines through the Treaty of Paris of 1898 and the Treaty of Washington of 1900. Both treaties give the western limit of the Philippine territory as 118 degrees east longitude, while South China Sea islands are all located beyond that scope. The Convention Between the United States and Great Britain (1930) , which was an agreement to delimit the boundary between North Borneo (then a British protectorate) and the Philippine archipelago (then a U.S. Territory), also shows that the South China islands are beyond the boundary of the Philippines. Therefore, South China Sea islands have never been territory of the Philippines in history.
Some people say that Huangyan Island was located within the EEZ of the Philippines, and thus was a part of Philippine territory. Such assertion does not hold water. In accordance with international law, territorial sovereignty is the basis of maritime rights. Only when a country has sovereignty over a territory, can it claim maritime rights over adjacent waters. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea explicitly stipulates that countries should not use the EEZ to claims territorial sovereignty.
When it comes to the South China Sea issue, though China has all the historical and legal rights on the disputed islands, still China has been proposing to set aside dispute and pursue joint development through "dual-track" approach, meaning disputes be resolved peacefully through bilateral negotiations, and China ASEAN countries work in multilateral way to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.
Before assuming my current capacity as Chinese Ambassador, I had been teaching history of China's diplomacy for over 20 years in China's Diplomatic Academy. I am well versed in this subject. In 1949 when the PRC was founded, China had territorial disputes with all its neighbors on land. The PRC government has managed to settle disputes peacefully through negotiations with 12 neighboring countries out of 14 in total. Out of the 20,000 kilometers of disputed borderline, 90% have been peacefully demarcated. China has also settled the Beibu (Tonkin) Gulf demarcation issue with Vietnam in 2000 through negotiations. The Chinese side always believes that as long as countries sit down and negotiate in the spirit of mutual understanding and mutual accommodation, disputes will be resolved. However, the Philippine side not only refused to negotiate, but unilaterally initiated international arbitration. They attempt to make unilateral imposition upon China, and expect China to oblige their wishful thinking to legalize their illegal occupation of China's islands, and to seize even more islands that they cast greedy eyes on.
People may think that since China has sufficient justifications, why doesn't China want to participate in the proceedings? Frankly speaking, in international relations, there are a lot of non-legal factors affecting judicial decisions. When it comes to territorial sovereignty, not every country feels confident with international arbitration. For this reason, the UNCLOS allows member states to declare optional exceptions of compulsory arbitration, and over 30 countries have made declarations excluding compulsory arbitration under Article 298, including four out of five permanent members of the UN Security Council, i.e., China, France, UK and Russia. China is merely exercising its legitimate rights to not take part in any unilaterally initiated arbitration.
Third, to view the South China Sea issue from the perspective of geopolitics. China has been concentrating on modernization ever since 1978, there are construction works in every corner of Chinese territory, including of cause, Chinese islands. The construction work that China carries out on South China Sea islands is part of its national modernization drive. China only wants to pursue domestic development, rather than pose challenge to others. Some people interpret China's construction work on the islands as intention for geopolitical games, which is pure misinterpretation.
And it is because of such misinterpretation that negative impacts have overshadowed the region, especially considering that the misinterpretation comes from the most powerful country in the world. Yes, I am speaking of the US. In fact, the US is fully aware of China's sovereignty over South China Sea islands. After the end of the Second World War, it was the US who provided four warships for China to recover the islands from Japanese occupation. The Chinese government actually re-named four islands in the South China Sea after the four American warships. And when China issued its official map in 1947, the US made no objection whatsoever.
Yet today, out of geopolitical consideration, the US fears that China may change the military balance in the Asia Pacific, and therefore adopted the so called rebalancing strategy in Asia, which plans to deploy 60% of American navy and air forces to Asia Pacific in order to hold China back.
The truth is, other countries have long been carrying out island construction and military deployment in the South China Sea. They did it and continue to do it on the illegally occupied Chinese islands. The US turned a blind eye about it. But when China begins construction, the US dispatches military airplanes and vessels within a few miles of China's islands. It is not an issue of freedom of navigation, but a dangerous provocation. As if there are not already too many problems in this world!
In conclusion, I'd like to emphasize that China cares about peace, stability and freedom of navigation in the region more than any other countries in the world, because South China Sea is the lifeline for China's foreign trade and energy supply. China understands European countries' concern over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. But if countries from outside the region really care about peace, stability and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the constructive and productive thing to do is to facilitate negotiations between parties directly involved.
China does not expect the EU to announce recognition of China's sovereignty over South China Sea islands. China is simply asking the EU to express support of resolving disputes through negotiations. Not only an imposed arbitration will not work, but also will make peaceful settlement even more difficult.
Finally, I will feel very glad if today's discussion will bring you some new elements of thinking for a better understanding of the situation in South China Sea. Thank you!