An official from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has suggested that changing the name of the South China Sea may help kick-start negotiations to resolve a longstanding maritime territorial dispute among China and five other Asian states.
“Maybe what we should do for a start is to change the name. Call it the Friendship Sea or Sea of Peace. I think then we can start negotiating,” said Termsak Chalermpalanupap, Director of ASEAN’s Political and Security Directorate.
The Philippines, China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, all maintain various claims to parts of the South China Sea, and to its island chains, including the hotly-disputed Spratly and Paracel islands.
Several nations use a different name domestically that supports its stake in the resource-rich sea.
In Vietnam, where citizens have held rare protests in recent weeks over naval incidents they say were initiated by Chinese actions in the South China Sea, officials refer to the body of water as the “East Sea.”
In the Philippines, officials in Manila refer to the sea as the “West Philippine Sea,” while Beijing simply refers to it as the “South Sea.”
Termsak said at a Washington conference on maritime security that Southeast Asian nations have been reluctant to negotiate with China because Beijing claims nearly all of the South China Sea.
“The problem is that from the Chinese side, everything belongs to China and whoever has an overlapping claim will have to negotiate with China. And that’s why [there is a need for] a bilateral approach,” he said.
“But from what I’ve heard from the claimants on the ASEAN side, they cannot go into bilateral [negotiations] because of the Chinese assumption that everything belongs to China. Certainly you can’t offer what you don’t own. The Chinese always believe that they own the whole South China Sea,” he said.
Termsak then suggested changing the name of the South China Sea as a prelude to any negotiations.
He proposed the use of a name for the sea that doesn’t imply outright Chinese ownership, saying it may allow other claimants to feel that they have more to bring to the negotiating table with Beijing.
Meanwhile, an online campaign initiated by the California-based Nguyen Thai Hoc Foundation in November to change the name of the South China Sea to the “Southeast Asia Sea” is gaining support as citizens of Southeast Asian nations staking a claim to the waters have expressed concerns about China’s increasing assertiveness.
The campaign, which has a following on social media site Facebook, now boasts nearly 44,000 supporters who have signed a petition demanding the change.
The petition states that the UN has officially recognized the region and the name “Southeast Asia” and that “the countries of Southeast Asia encompass almost the entire South China Sea with a total coastline measuring approximately 130,000 kilometers (81,250 miles) long” compared to only 2,800 kilometers (1,750 miles) of coastline in southern China.
“The sea is not restricted to a specific country. It is a common heritage of mankind and has actually been used by the international community for centuries as the second most important water channel in the world,” it reads.
The petition has been sent to the Geographical Society of 10 countries, the Secretary General of the UN, the UN Atlas of the Oceans, and the presidents and prime ministers of 11 Southeast Asian countries.
Last year, Washington said it was willing to back smaller Asian nations who felt threatened by China, which has pressed its sovereignty over the Spratlys and Paracels.
Washington is particularly concerned that China's increasingly assertive maritime ambitions could trigger conflicts in the region that could hurt access to one of the world's busiest commercial sea lanes.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has assured ASEAN that Beijing is committed to implementing an agreed blueprint for managing their overlapping claims to ownership of the islands.
The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, called DOC by diplomats, was inked in 2002 as a first step towards a binding code of conduct for Beijing and the 10-member ASEAN group, but the agreement has been gathering dust.
China has objected to a key component of a set of guidelines proposed by ASEAN for implementation of the agreement.
Four ASEAN claimants
China is against a paragraph that allows the four ASEAN claimants in the South China Sea—Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam—to hold informal consultations among themselves prior to an ASEAN-China meeting, officials said.
Beijing insists that the Spratly issue does not concern the four ASEAN claimants collectively, or ASEAN as a group.
ASEAN and China pledged in the DOC to resolve their sovereignty disputes in a peaceful manner, without resorting to the use of force.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam have separate claims over parts of the Spratlys, while China claims all of the Spratlys and adjacent waters as well as other islands further south of China's nine dotted dashes on its official map, which form a U shape reaching down to Indonesia's Natuna Sea.
The Paracel Islands, like the Spratlys further south, are also claimed by both China and Vietnam. In 1976, China invaded and captured the islands from Vietnam.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.