Declaring Spratlys UN Trust Territory solution
Published on: Monday, July 27, 2020
By: Tunku Abdul Aziz
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Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea (SCS) are not just confined to the Paracel Islands. Her aggressive expansion into the Spratlys has set off alarm bells in many capitals.

Setting diplomatic niceties aside, a former Malaysian deputy prime minister, Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, speaking in Kota Kinabalu on Nov 13, 2015 accused “a regional superpower” of having “encroached into maritime territory by constructing airstrips, jetties and other facilities on three atolls just 84 nautical miles from Sabah”.

He left absolutely no doubt about the sense of betrayal that Malaysia felt in light of China’s oft-repeated undertakings that it would not resort to the use of force in settling disputes with other claimant countries. The massive construction of military facilities point to less than peaceful intentions.

The non-belligerent assurances China has given have apparently provided little comfort to its Southeast Asian neighbours. China has so far shown a complete disregard for international views and concerns about its frenetic land reclamation and construction of airstrips and other facilities ostensibly to provide shelter for Chinese fishing boats and their crews operating in those waters.

Observers familiar with the construction of military installations are convinced that the facilities are more military than civilian in character. In the East China Sea, it has claimed the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which the Chinese refer to as the Diaoyu Islands, giving rise to heightened tension and uncertainty.

Many in Southeast Asia have come around to the view that without the United States providing that vital balance of power, their hopes of peace and prosperity in the region of the world they call home will be dashed.

In recent times, US naval presence in the Spratlys, for example, with guided missile destroyer, the USS Lassen, sailing to show the flag to within 12 nautical miles of one of the artificial islets had ruffled a lot of feathers in Beijing. Tensions have risen to new heights with the Philippines, the most vocal of the other claimants, having won the right recently for an international panel to hear its territorial disputes with China.

With China adopting a lukewarm and generally unhelpful attitude, a proposal for a code to regulate international conduct in the disputed territory has been effectively stymied. The Chinese have made clear their aversion to going to international arbitration to settle the SCS disputes. It seems highly improbable that they will shift their position.

A former international law professor, an overseas friend of mine, thought the disputed area would be best administered with reference to the Trusteeship Council of the United Nations as a UN Trust, on behalf of the claimants for an agreed period of at least 50 years. It would be ideal if China would agree to support this international initiative, but even without China, the other claimants could collectively request the UN, in the interest of world peace and security, to declare the disputed area a UN Trust Territory.

In this way the rights of all claimants, based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, will be protected, and the danger of a serious conflict arising therefrom defused. It is good to see a more assertive Malaysia defending its legitimate rights of ownership, a welcome shift of position. Malaysia is quite within her rights to state her position unequivocally and robustly.

The disputed area is geographically more Southeast Asian than Chinese, with huge military and commercial implications for us in Asean. We can still work and be friends with China by standing up for our rights and this they will have to accept. From my experience, big boys respect the little ones who stand up to them.


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