By Dr. Andrestinos N. Papadopoulos, Ambassador a.h.
THE LATIN maxim “audeatur et altera pars”, meaning that in a dispute you should also listen to the version of the other party, applies perfectly to the comments offered by Gwynne Dyer in his article concerning the China-Vietnam dispute over sovereignty in the South China Sea (Cyprus Mail, May 17, 2014).
The dispute came to the fore when China moved its Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil drilling rig into part of the South China Sea where Vietnam also claims seabed rights. Anti-Chinese demonstrations erupted in Hanoi and Saigon, and in the Binh Duong province, workers burned fifteen factories, three of which were Chinese-owned. In this respect, China has not taken any measures in retaliation.
Concerning the ownership of the islands in the disputed South China Sea the Chinese version is that it was they who first discovered, named, mapped, fished and built shelters and even temples on the islands centuries ago in the vast waters of the south of China, hence the name of the sea.
The islands were briefly seized by foreign invaders, but China recovered the islands after World War II. The islands were marked and recognised as Chinese not only in Chinese maps but also maps of the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, Vietnam and the Philippines until the 1970s.
No country in the neighborhood had challenged China’s position on the islands until the energy crisis broke out and the South China Sea was reported to have plenty of oil and gas. Some countries began to lay claim to the islands, occupy them and exploit oil and gas in the waters, despite China’s clear opposition.
Moreover, China, in order to keep good ties with its neighbours, has proposed to jointly develop the South China Sea pending a solution to the disputes. However, Vietnam and the Philippines have refused to do so, while unilaterally going in for oil drilling and have kept harassing and intimidating Chinese fishing boats in the disputed waters.
The events concerning the oil drilling rig 981 are explained as follows by China:
The China National Offshore Oil Corporation has been operating in the waters off China’s Xisha Islands for ten years. To install the drilling rig was a natural course of action, as part of the whole commercial operation. Worth nothing is also the fact that the rig at issue is just 17 nautical miles from the Chinese island, but 150 nautical miles from the Vietnamese coast.
Trying to explain the Chinese stand on the dispute, it was proposed that a foreign confrontation was desirable in order to distract the Chinese population from a forthcoming economic recession. One can argue that it is a well known fact that China has enjoyed double-digit growth for over three decades since the 1980s, and today’s picture is not at all gloomy. China’s GDP grew by 7.6% last year and 7.4% in the first quarter this year, which is considered as a remarkable achievement for a US$ 9 trillion economy, the second largest in the world.
This was achieved within a peaceful environment, and China has no reason to disrupt it and shift the attention from growth to risky adventures.
China, Vietnam and the Philippines have been neighbours for thousands of years and this cannot change. Sovereign and territorial issues are sensitive matters to any nation. However, solution to their disputes should not be sought through military action, but through peaceful negotiations.
Recently, the question was raised again at an Asian international security conference, when the US defence secretary accused Beijing of destabilising the region and a top Chinese general retorted that his comments were a “threat and intimidation”. To set the record straight, as reported by the official Xinhua news agency, President Xi Jinping said that China would not “seek to make trouble in the South China Sea, but would have to respond if others did”. Peaceful negotiations are, therefore, the way out.