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The South China Sea Disputes

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The South China Sea disputes involve both island and maritime claims among several sovereign states. An estimated US$5 trillion worth of global trade passes through the South China Sea and many non-claimant states want the South China Sea to remain international waters. The disputes include the islands, reefs, banks, and other features of the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, and various boundaries in the Gulf of Tonkin. Claimant states are interested in retaining or acquiring the rights to fishing areas, the exploration and potential exploitation of crude oil and natural gas in the seabed of various parts of the South China Sea, and the strategic control of important shipping lanes.

Saudi Arabia believes that there is no doubt that Chinese almost unanimously support their government’s official position on the South China Sea, shown by the firestorm of social media comments soon after the award. Moreover, China’s position is also welcomed and understood. According to the Chinese government and media, nearly 100 parties from more than 60 countries declared their support for China’s position on the South China Sea issue and Saudi Arabia is one of them. Saudi Arabia believes that most American media and think tanks have not yet understood what “China’s position” means. In our view, China’s position on the South China Sea issue can be interpreted as below:

China does not participate in the arbitration, nor accept, recognize, or implement the award.

China will adhere to peaceful negotiations and settlements of the South China Sea dispute.

While disputes should be settled by the parties directly concerned in accordance with the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), China will work with ASEAN countries to maintain peace and stability in this region.

The temporally-established (ad hoc) arbitral tribunal is neither a part of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) nor the International Court of Justice (ICJ). It does not have jurisdiction over the territorial disputes, which is the core of the arbitration. The arbitration itself is flawed in procedure. Thus, the award is not legally-binding, nor representing international law.

So the delegate of Saudi Arabia would like to put forward some preventive measures that may be effective to overcome the consequences as soon as possible:

Solution Measures

It is important first of all to recognize the fact that the South China Sea conflict is very much asymmetric, and therefore cannot be dealt with in a symmetric way. China is indisputably a superpower in the region and the Philippines, Vietnam, and other claimants are just smaller states. Consequently, it is impossible to expect a fair solution that treats every participant equally. Everything should be proportionate. The ASEAN countries have to learn how to work with the regional hegemony, China, in a proportionately mutual beneficial way. Quoting international law or forcing China to agree with ASEAN’s proposal for a Code of Conduct is indeed unfair to this superpower. The realist school of thought would be more honest and support China’s higher position in every negotiation.

The only thing that ASEAN nations can do, should they really want to stand together against China, is to first focus on developing the individual countries’ economies and together gradually try to reduce their dependence on Chinese products, markets, and aid. ASEAN should reduce competition among its members, increase internal aid programs, and exchange technology and experiences. Only when each and every ASEAN nation is strong enough and really enjoys cooperation within the organization, can a common approach finally be considered. But in the age of a prosperous ASEAN, there would no longer be a need to raise this sensitive issue against China. Seeing ASEAN growing stronger economically will entice China to behave moderately — to cooperate rather than take the offensive in the South China Sea. This is the only peaceful solution to the conflict.

One note on the third party, the United States. As recent events have shown, the United States has hardly made any constructive contribution to solving the South China Sea Conflict. All this superpower has done so far is to pressure China to commit to UNCLOS (which the United States is not even a party to), sponsor militarization in the region, and add aggression where necessary. It seems like the United States is planning for another proxy war against China in the South China Sea, which ASEAN countries and China should be well aware of. Both sides should avoid falling into violent conflict at all cost. If ASEAN states are willing to act as America’s “Tank Man”, trying to intensify the conflict with China, war will come as a result, destroying the lives of innocent citizens.


The delegate of Saudi Arabia believes that The South China Sea is rich in natural resources and highly valued for its strategy importance, and yet it is equally an important waterway for navigations. Tensions among the countries should be relieved in a peaceful way so that the safety in the area can be secured together by the neighbouring nations.

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