All must abide by UNCLOS in South China Sea

https://www.nst.com.my/opinion/letters/2020/07/612388/all-must-abide-unclos-south-china-sea

Putrajaya must be steadfast in protecting our sovereign rights in the South China Sea. AFP PIC
Putrajaya must be steadfast in protecting our sovereign rights in the South China Sea. AFP PIC

LETTERS: The South China Sea (SCS) is a large maritime area bordered by a number of countries, namely Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Brunei, the Philippines and China.

Singapore may possess tiny maritime areas in the southern part of the South China Sea through Pedra Branca located near the Strait of Singapore.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea 1982 (UNCLOS) provides that coastal states may claim sovereignty over territorial sea area up to 12 nautical miles measured from the baseline. Beyond the 12 nautical miles limit not exceeding 200 nautical miles, coastal states may claim for exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf, where they possess sovereign rights to exploit living and non-living resources within these maritime zones.

This may seem straightforward for nations that are located in isolation. Australia, for instance, does not share much of its maritime areas with immediate neighbouring countries, except with Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea to the north.

In contrast, Malaysia’s maritime areas are surrounded by other states on almost all sides. Coastal states bordering the SCS possess entitlements to claim maritime areas not only limited to territorial sea, but both EEZ and continental shelf as well, as undertaken by Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam and Indonesia.

China, instead, is pursuing historical claims in the form of a U-shaped line popularly known as the nine-dash line that goes thousands of nautical miles down south.

A number of international law experts are against the Chinese nine-dash line claims. For example, Emiritus Professor Carlyle Thayer from the University of New South Wales argued that Chinese historical claims over the SCS are not compatible with principles of international law of the sea.

The late Caitlyn Antrim of the American University Washington College of Law commented that “the U-shaped line has no ground under the international law because the historical basis is very weak”.

In addition, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on July 13, asserted that Beijing’s claims to offshore resources across most of SCS are completely unlawful under the international law. China had earlier rejected the award issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in 2016 as Beijing believed that the arbitral tribunal was established unlawfully.

The PCA has, one way or another, indicated that the world does not agree with China’s nine-dash line claim.

Despite this, China is adamant with its nine-dash line, which definitely overlaps with maritime areas claimed by Malaysia in the SCS, particularly near the waters off Sarawak and Sabah.

International law dictates that a nation must be a persistent objector in objecting practices of other states it is not in agreement with. Remaining silent is not an option. Therefore, Putrajaya must be steadfast in protecting our sovereignty and sovereign rights in the SCS by issuing diplomatic protests should such encroachments take place in maritime areas claimed by Malaysia.

This has to be done persistently, continuously and constantly as reaffirmed by Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein through a report in Berita Harian on July 16. The Chinese embassy in Malaysia has reiterated that China has never sought to build a “maritime empire” in the SCS and rejects the presence of outside powers meddling in this vast maritime area.

Therefore, China and other claimant states — all of which are state-parties to the UNCLOS — must act in accordance with what is allowed by the convention in pushing forward the consultation on the Code of Conduct to further safeguard peace and stability of the SCS.

Dr Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli

Royal Malaysian Navy Volunteer Reserve


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times

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