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Spratly Islands Conflict Management

Most of these claims are historical, but they are also based upon internationally accepted principles extending territorial claims offshore onto a country's continental shelf, as well as the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The 1982 convention created a number of guidelines concerning the status of islands, the continental shelf, enclosed seas, and territorial limits. Three of the most relevant to the South China Sea are:

  1. Article 3, which establishes that "every state has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles";
  2. Articles 55 - 75 define the concept of an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which is an area up to 200 nautical miles beyond and adjacent to the territorial sea. The EEZ gives coastal states "sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting, conserving and managing the natural resources, whether living or non-living, of the waters superjacent to" (above) "the seabed and of the seabed and its subsoil..."
  3. Article 121, which states that rocks that cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.

The establishment of the EEZ created the potential for overlapping claims in semi-enclosed seas such as the South China Sea. These claims could be extended by any nation which could establish a settlement on the islands in the region. South China Sea claimants have clashed as they tried to establish outposts on the islands (mostly military) in order to be in conformity with Article 121 in pressing their claims.

In mid-1991, fresh from diplomatic success in helping to end the Cambodian civil war, Indonesia took the initiative in seeking to open multilateral negotiations on competitive South China Sea claims, especially those claims involving jurisdictional disputes over the Spratly Islands. Indonesia has taken a leading role in diplomatic initiatives and cooperative agreements to resolve South China Sea issues, particularly through the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) forum, which has called for the peaceful arbitration of territorial claims. ASEAN includes all South China Sea nations except for China and Taiwan, and has held a number of working groups with China and Taiwan on related issues that have the potential to foster the cooperation and friendship needed to resolve the more contentious issues in the region. Indonesia hosted the first of these workshops in 1990. The ASEAN foreign ministers have reiterated the invitations to all parties directly concerned to subscribe to the principles of the ASEAN Declaration on the South China Sea.

In late 1998 the presidents of China and the Philippines agreed to form a committee of experts to advise on confidence-building measures.

In late November 1999 officials of ASEAN agreed to draft a regional code of conduct to prevent conflicts over the Spratly Islands in advance of the ASEAN summit in Manila. The Philippines, which drafted much of the proposed code, sought to align ASEAN's members in a common stance against what it saw as Chinese expansionism in the Spratlys. China agreed to hold talks with ASEAN member nations on the newly formulated draft code of conduct. But China, which claims the entire South China Sea, signalled it was not ready to agree to the ASEAN draft. Vietnam wanted the code to cover the Paracels while Malaysia did not want the code to refer to all of the South China Sea. China, which is not an ASEAN member and claims all of the islands, opposed inclusion of the Paracels in the code. Australia pressed for the proposed code to include a moratorium on the occupation of reefs and atolls or building on them.

In January 2000 photographs of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands were shown to the foreign ministers of the other eight ASEAN countries by Philippine foreign minister, Domingo Siazon. The photographic evidence showed that China had expanded installations on the reef since 1995, when it first started building what it said were shelters for fishermen. There are now four sites on the reef with installations that could be connected to form a fortress, like Gibraltar, or a five-star hotel for fishermen.

Southeast Asian countries, concerned that Beijing might be strengthening its claim to much of the South China Sea, called for restraint and strict observance of international law in a high-level meeting with China in January 2000.

On 04 November 2002 the Governments of the Member States of ASEAN and the Government of the People's Republic of China signed the "Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea." The Parties undertook to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities in the South China Sea that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.

China and the Philippines have discussed possible joint exploration for petroleum in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The speaker of the Philippine House of Representatives, Jose de Venecia, said the chairman of China's parliament, Wu Bannguo, made the proposal 31 August 2003 during talks in Manila. China also pledged to increase investment in the Philippines. Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing vowed to increase investments in the Philippines to match the growing Philippine investment in China. The two ministers also discussed the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

In September 2003 representatives of the Philippines, China and other claimant countries of the Spratly Islands signed a declaration of peace to promote the development of the resources in the disputed islands. The declaration was signed at the Asian Association of Parliaments for Peace (AAPP) conference in the Philippines.

In March 2005, the national oil companies of China, the Philippines, and Vietnam signed a joint accord to conduct marine seismic experiments in the Spratly Islands for economic purposes.

Suggested confidence-building measures among claimant countries include joint research and development in the Spratlys. Among the suggestions to enhance the development of the Spratly Islands include the creation of a marine park; establishment of a South China Sea Institute for Marine Resources Management, conducting a joint survey and assessment of the mineral and hydrocarbon potential and implementation of maritime safety and surveillance measures.



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