A superpower such as China shouldn’t find it necessary to encourage skirmishes between its fishing boats and those of its much smaller neighbours.
On Monday, a Vietnamese fishing boat sank in the South China Sea in a collision with Chinese fishing boats. The Chinese state-owned news agency Xinhua said the Vietnamese boat had capsized after harassing and colliding with a Chinese boat. But the conflict seems to have had less to do with fish than with petroleum – and with misplaced national pride.
China Oilfield Services Ltd., a subsidiary of the state-owned oil corporation CNOOC Inc., recently set up a large deep-sea drilling rig near the Paracel Islands, which China took from South Vietnam in 1974. The confrontation is particularly disturbing because China’s last real war was with Vietnam in 1979. China’s position is that such disputes – and it is embroiled with several of its maritime neighbours – should be resolved bilaterally by the “parties directly concerned.” Beijing is not, however, showing much interest in compromises, or in appeals to the logical source of answers: international law.
That is why President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines, involved in one of those disputes with China, is right to have filed a claim in February with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, over some rocks, shoals and fishing grounds in the South China Sea. He’d like to settle this dispute through international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Vietnam is considering doing likewise.
As a rising power, China should not feel threatened by an international forum or international law. The country has benefited enormously from decades of peace and stability, and will soon surpass the United States in gross domestic product. Beijing has no need to contend for every square kilometre of disputed seawater. The country’s future prosperity lies in good relations with its neighbours, growing trade and rising education and living standards among its people. It has nothing to gain from acquiring a few extra square kilometres of ocean or rocks.