On June 6, 2014 in Beijing, the China Institute of the University of Alberta (CIUA), in collaboration with National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS), convened the 2nd Arctic/Asia-Pacific Maritime Conference: Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) Security in the Asia Pacific and the Arctic. Sixteen speakers from Canada, China, the US, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines participated in the conference, along with 70 observers including scholars from think tanks and universities and diplomats from embassies based in Beijing.
Gordon Houlden, co-chair from the CIUA, noted in his opening remarks that SLOCs are important and becoming even more significant for trade. The South China Sea is important to both regional and non-regional countries, including Canada. Security breakdown in this area would threaten global economic stability. The Arctic also has its own regional challenges and is as important to Canada as the South China Sea is to Southeast Asia. The expected melting of the polar ice will affect many aspects of Arctic Sea geopolitics, requiring new legal and regulatory frameworks sooner rather than later to avoid potential conflicts.
Wu Shicun, co-chair from the NISCSS, stressed that sea lane security is especially needed in the Arctic and the Asia-Pacific. China realizes that it benefits greatly from sea lane security and would like to play a constructive role in safeguarding that security. In the South China Sea, this security has been undermined by a multitude
of factors, including piracy and armed robbery. Another challenge is how to secure safe SLOCs in the South China Sea dispute despite the competing interests and claims. Confidence-building measures should be taken so that the sea lanes do not become an arena for a geopolitical conflict. Wu called for a further discussion on
the legal and political regimes of maritime navigation, which can bring order to the region.
In the “Status and Challenges of SLOC security: Different Regional Perspectives” panel, presentations focused on the Arctic, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea. Differences and similarities in Russian and Canadian Arctic legislation were discussed. They were found to be more similar, since Russia follows Canada closely in legislation, although Russia has recently altered its legislation. The role of the Arctic Council was also discussed. The possibility or necessity of establishing a regional management mechanism in the Arctic was met with scepticism, due to the application of UNCLOS Article 234 by Canada and Russia—their regulations for shipping are used as legislation for effective control. Debates occurred on the topics of whether UNCLOS ceases to prevail because of China’s “seven caveats” and whether China respects UNCLOS.. It was argued that China does abide by UNCLOS. However, in the case of South China Sea, not only do disputes occur over maritime boundaries, but also territorial boundaries. The latter could not be settled by UNCLOS alone. Such disputes must be referred to customary international law. China respects the Exclusive Economic Zone provisions of the UNCLOS, but in the South China Sea, there are still deliberations over which EEZ belongs to which country. In addition, there are issues regarding whether individual features in the South China Sea are covered by the EEZ.
In the “Maintaining SLOC Security: Legal Perspectives” panel, three presentations were made, on the international legal architecture as regards sovereign immune vessels; on some legal issues concerning interference with navigation, using the “Sino-Philippine Arbitration on South China Sea Disputes” as an example; and on mixed disputes and the jurisdictional puzzle in the two pending cases: Mauritius v. U.K. and Philippines v. China. Questions of international law of the immunities, responsibilities, and exemptions regarding the relationship between coastal States and sovereign immune vessels are directly relevant to the South China Sea, where there have been incidents and differences of views involving navigational freedoms and rights and sovereign immune vessels. A consensus emerged in this panel that the territorial and maritime disputes between China and the Philippines over the South China Sea must be resolved through peaceful consultation and friendly
negotiation. As for the implication of the U-shaped line, the nine dash line was not originally meant to be a line enclosing water over which China made maritime zonal claims; it was a line indicating the islands, rocks, and maritime features over which China claims territorial sovereignty.
Four presentations were given in the “SLOC Security and Maritime Disputes: Political Perspectives” panel, ranging from a comparative study on Canada, China and Japan on maritime issues, political perspectives of Japan and Vietnam on SLOC security and maritime disputes, to maritime security in Asia Pacific, Arctic shipping, and the Polar Code. Participants discussed and supported the view that a regional cooperative mechanism would be useful in the South China Sea for search and rescue with participation from all littoral states plus other countries (US, Japan, South Korea). Views on the nationalistic questions and the South China Sea were presented. Some believed that the younger generation is more nationalistic, especially with social media and greater access to information in Asia. Asian countries are becoming more democratic and thus have to take into account public opinion. The Code of Conduct (CoC) is considered to be a potential mechanism for conflict management, although some questioned whether it will be sufficient for future incidents.
In the last panel, “SLOC Security and Role of Navies and Law Enforcement Agencies: Functional Perspectives”, four presentations were given. A question was raised on whether it would be in Chinese interests to put aside disputes on the Scarborough or Diaoyu, given their limited economic value. Some, however, believed that China was forced to focus on the disputes and must return to a peaceful way of handling them. Another question addressed how the US and Chinese navies can cooperate to promote SLOC security. Canada or a third-party role was addressed and it was noted that China welcomes any third party who can play a positive role, but that country must be impartial. It was said that Canada needs to address its “credibility deficit” in the Asia- Pacific region and must decide whether it’s a major player or not, although it Canada has an advantage as a neutral, good-faith mediator.
This conference contributed to the development of the Canada- China Maritime Study Group, established in January 2014 between CIUA and NISCSS. This Study Group aims to enhance Canada-China cooperation on maritime studies, focusing on the Arctic, South China Sea, and Asia-Pacific in general, and to serve as a framework under which Canadian and Chinese scholars will share their research interests and
findings in a range of disciplines related to maritime studies.