Author: Huy Duong
The Southeast Asian Sea Research Foundation en.seasfoundation.org/
While “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development” is acceptable as a general principle, China’s view regarding it makes it unfair to Vietnam in the short term and threatens Vietnam’s territorial integrity in the long term.
VietNamNet Editor’s Note (for the Vietnamese version)
Recently China has repeatedly emphasised the guideline of “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development” as if it were a constructive idea for the tense dispute in the South China Sea (also known as the East Vietnam Sea). Taking into account the complexity of the South China Sea dispute and the absence of any solution, setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development may be acceptable, but only if it is done in a fair way.
This article analyses China’s proposal regarding “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development” and arrives at the conclusion that this solution is acceptable if all parties set aside dispute and pursue joint development in a fair way. This requires principles for ensuring fairness that are absent from China’s view.
The article expresses the author’s point of view. All comments are welcome.
At the international conference on “The South China Sea: Co-Operation for Regional Security and Development” in Hanoi on November 26th and 27th, 2009, Dr. Ji Guoxing, a professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University and former Head of the Asia-Pacific Department at the Institute for International Strategic Studies (under Shanghai Institutes of International Studies), re-emphasised China’s proposal regarding “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development”.
Professor Ji Guoxing suggested that first of all, all parties in the dispute have to agree to a common overall framework for exploiting the resources in the South China Sea. Professor Ji Guoxing clarified by suggesting that Vietnam and China should discuss the possibility of joint-developing the Vanguard Bank, an area completely inside the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone of the undisputable territory of Vietnam.
At the same time, China’s guideline of “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development” does not include the Paracel Islands, currently occupied by China. China even claims that the sovereignty dispute over the Paracel Islands does not exist.
Map 1: Twelve-nautical-mile territorial waters including disputed islands and 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone including other territories. Is it fair to joint-develop the area based on the ‘ox tongue-shaped (nine-dotted line) zone’?
At a press conference in Hanoi on January 6th, 2010, Chinese Ambassador Sūn Guó Qiáng also suggested the proposal of “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development”.
Ambassador Sūn Guó Qiáng said “Chinese senior leaders suggest a constructive idea, which is to put the dispute aside for joint development”, and suggested that Vietnam and China should put the dispute aside and wait for the right conditions to solve the dispute: “Once the right conditions come and the two sides are able to solve the dispute, it is assured that our relationship will grow better. In contrast, when the conditions are not right and prevent us from gaining a better relationship, what we should do is to set aside the dispute. More effort and co-operation is needed to be done to improve the relationship between the two countries. While growing the bilateral relationship and waiting for the right conditions, both sides have more time to solve the dispute and may find a better solution.”
This article discusses China’s proposal regarding “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development”, which is referred to as “a constructive idea” by Ambassador Sūn Guó Qiáng.
The Origin of China’s Proposal Regarding “Setting aside Dispute and Pursuing Joint Development”
The Circumstance of the Dispute over the Shenkaku Islands (Diào Yú Dái Qún Dǎo in Chinese)
The guideline “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development” was first suggested when the dispute over the Shenkaku Islands (尖閣諸島 in Japanese)/ Diào Yú Dái Islands (钓鱼台群岛 in Chinese) between Japan and China happened.
Map 2: The location of Shenkaku/Diào Yú Dái Islands
During the visit to Japan on October 25th, 1978, Chinese Vice-Premier Dèng Xiǎopíng told the Japanese Prime Minister, Takeo Fukuda, that both parties should let the next generation solve the dispute over the Shenkaku/ Diào Yú Dái Islands, and that the common benefit should be given priority in the relation of the two countries.
In fact, Japan and China have followed this “setting aside dispute” guideline.
The remarkable point is that Japan is controlling the Shenkaku/Diào Yú Dái Islands. In a sovereignty dispute, setting aside dispute will benefit the country controlling the territory. Therefore, setting aside dispute is of more advantage to Japan than to China.
As at late 1970s, China wanted to broaden its international relation. For that reason, China had no other choice but to suggest putting aside dispute over the Shenkaku/ Diào Yú Dái Islands, which benefited Japan more than China in terms of the sovereignty dispute, in order to develop the relationship with Japan.
On May 11th, 1979, Dèng Xiǎopíng told Zenko Suzuki, member of Japan’s House of Representatives, that China and Japan could joint-develop the area near the Shenkaku/ Diào Yú Dái Islands regardless of the dispute over sovereignty of the islands.
It should be noted that the Shenkaku/ Diào Yú Dái Islands and the sea areas nearby are controlled by Japan and these areas are closer to Japan and Taiwan than China, making it easier for Japan than for China to exploit. Hence the proposal of China co-operating in the exploitation of these areas is more of a decision profitable for China than a constructive suggestion towards the bilateral relationship between Japan and China.
The reality is that up to now, Japan has always rejected all suggestions from China to exploit the sea areas near these islands.
The Circumstance of the Dispute over Spratly Islands
When China started to develop its relation with ASEAN in the 1970s and 1980s, in order to broaden the diplomatic relations and to equipoise Vietnam, Dèng Xiǎopíng presented a “reasonable”, in China’s point of view, proposal on the dispute over Spratly Islands to ASEAN as below:
• The Spratly Islands have been an inseparable part of China from the very old days;
• The sovereignty dispute over these islands started in the 1970s;
• For the sake of friendship with concerned countries, China wishes to set the dispute aside and shall, at a later time, find a solution acceptable for both parties; and
• All parties shall avoid armed conflict and find a solution for joint development.
In June 1986, Dèng Xiǎopíng suggested to Filipino Vice-President Salvador Lauren that China and the Philippines should set the dispute over Spratly Islands aside, “We should not let this issue be a hindrance to the friendship between China and the Philippines and other countries.”
In April 1988, Dèng Xiǎopíng once again brought up this idea with Filipino President Corazon Aquino “Based on the friendship between our two countries, we can temporarily set aside this issue for the time being and take the approach of pursuing joint development”.
Despite his proposal of setting aside dispute, Dèng Xiǎopíng insisted on his “explanation” that China has sovereignty over the Spratly Islands. According to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dèng Xiǎopíng explicitly pointed out that “the Spratly Islands have been always depicted as part of China on every world map”, and that “We have much evidence. Maps of the world in many countries also support this.” Dèng Xiǎopíng also told President Corazon Aquino that China was in the most authoritative position to address the issue of the Spratly Islands, since they had always been a part of China’s territory.
The noticeable point is that at the beginning of 1988, China occupied Fiery Cross, Cuarteron, Gaven, Hughes, and Subi Reefs in the Spratly Islands. In April 1988, when the blood of Vietnamese soldiers had not been washed away in the Spratly Islands’ sea, China attacked Collins, Johnson, and London Reefs on March 14th, 1988 and finally occupied Johnson Reef. This is an example of the limitation of what China calls “setting aside dispute”.
Obviously, “setting aside dispute” coupled with “It is China’s territory” and aggressive territorial seizure does not mean “setting aside dispute” but to tell other countries “not to dispute”.
Based on China’s suggestion and behaviour, “the solution acceptable for both parties” does not appear as a fair settlement for sovereignty dispute, but a solution to make other countries recognize the sovereignty of China for certain benefits in return.
Therefore, Dèng Xiǎopíng’s idea of “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development” is not a constructive suggestion but for countering Vietnam in general and seizing the Spratly Islands from Vietnam in particular.
Since the 1990s, the China’s claim has been widened to include the area inside the nine-dotted line, and the idea of “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development” has evolved to be applied for the whole area.
One can see that “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development” does not come from a constructive idea but instead to support China’s unreasonable demand for joint development in Vietnam’s territorial waters such as Vanguard–Rifleman Bank and the south island of Poulo Condore.
We can get better idea about the concept of “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development” from the following information on the website of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
China’s Explanation of “Setting aside Dispute and Pursuing Joint Development”
According to the article “Set aside Dispute and Pursue Joint Development” on the website of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the idea of “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development” includes four points:
1. The sovereignty of the concerned territories belongs to China;
2. When conditions are not ready to bring about a thorough solution to territorial dispute, discussion on the issue of sovereignty may be postponed so that the dispute is set aside. Setting aside the dispute does not mean giving up sovereignty. It is just to leave the dispute aside for the time being [the only sovereignty mentioned is the sovereignty of China, A/N];
3. The concerned territories may be joint-developed; and
4. The purpose of joint development is to enhance mutual understanding through co-operation and create conditions for the eventual resolution of territorial sovereignty [the only sovereignty mentioned is the sovereignty of China, A/N].
There are fundamental issues behind the aforementioned points:
Firstly, “the sovereignty of the concerned territories belongs to China” is one of the main points of the idea of “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development”. However, the possibility that other countries have partial or entire sovereignty over the disputed territories is not mentioned. This point is by nature an argument for sovereignty dispute and contrary to the idea of “setting aside dispute”.
Secondly, how can we define the ready (ripe) conditions for a thorough solution? What needs to be done to have those conditions? And what should a thorough solution be like?
According to the author, a thorough solution will become possible only if the sovereignty is fairly ascertained. And the sovereignty issue shall be justly solved via negotiation or a fair arbitrator such as the International Court of Justice. Any deferral of negotiation on sovereignty will create unfavourable conditions for a fair sovereignty dispute solution.
Also, the “ready” (ripe) conditions mentioned by China might imply those for the realization of the first point: “The sovereignty of the concerned territories belongs to China”.
Thirdly, which disputed territories can be joint-developed? The joint development is only fair in areas over which each concerned party can present an acceptable argument for its sovereignty. And it will be unacceptable if a country has to accept another country’s demand to joint-develop in any disputed territories
The unacceptable nine-dotted line advanced by China will create an unfair condition for any joint development activity.
Moreover, China does not allow Vietnam to exploit the Paracel Islands area despite the fact that Vietnam’s argument of its sovereignty over the Paracel Islands is better off any minimally-reasonable level allowing Vietnam’s rights to joint-develop this area.
The fourth point indicates that China’s ultimate purpose behind its proposal of joint development is to create the conditions for the first point, which is “the sovereignty of the concerned territories belongs to China”.
In summary, the idea of “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development” is acceptable as a general principle. This same idea, however, when interpreted with China’s concept behind it, will become a completely different story. Consequently, Vietnam will suffer an unfair situation in short term, and the risk of losing sovereignty not only over the Paracel and Spratly Islands but also for the territorial waters within the nine-dotted line in long term.
In order to set aside dispute for joint development in a fair way, fair rules which are currently not included in China’s guideline of “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development” shall be made.
Sincere thanks go to Vicky Tran and Don Nguyen for their translation, correction and comments.
 T. Lam. Hội thảo quốc tế về Biển Đông. Vietnamnet, 25/11/2009. Link: http://www.vietnamnet.vn/chinhtri/200911/Hoi-thao-quoc-te-ve-Bien-Dong-880652/
 Huỳnh Phan. Giải quyết tranh chấp Biển Đông trong mắt học giả Trung Quốc. Vietnmanet, 07/12/2009. Link: http://www.tuanvietnam.net/2009-12-04-giai-quyet-tranh-chap-bien-dong-trong-mat-hoc-gia-trung-quoc
 China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qín Gāng responded to corresspondants on the Vietnam’s protest China’s military exercises in the Paracel Islands. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qín Gāng’s Regular Press Conference on 27 November, 2007. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affaris, 28/11/2007, link: http://big5.fmprc.gov.cn/gate/big5/tr.china-embassy.org/eng/fyrth/t385091.htm
Q: It was reported that Vietnam protested against China’s military exercise in Xisha Islands, regarding it as a “violation” of its “sovereignty”. Do you have any comment?
A: It is known to all that China has undeniable sovereignty over the Xisha Islands and its adjacent islets. China and Vietnam have no dispute over this issue. The routine training of the Chinese navy is an ordinary activity within Chinese waters under China’s sovereignty. Vietnam’s protest is totally groundless.
 Xuân Linh. Chờ điều kiện chín muồi giải quyết tranh chấp Biển Đông. Vietnamnet, 6/1/2010. Link: http://vietnamnet.vn/chinhtri/201001/Cho-dieu-kien-chin-muoi-giai-quyet-tranh-chap-bien-Dong-888092/
 China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Set aside dispute and pursue joint development. 17/11/2000. Link: http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/ziliao/3602/3604/t18023.htm
 China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ibid:
When China entered into diplomatic relations with the Southeast Asian countries in the 1970s and 1980s, during talks with the leaders of these countries, Dèng Xiǎopíng made the following reasonable proposal for resolving disputes over the Nansha Islands: The Nansha Islands have been an integral part of China’s territory since the ancient times. But disputes have occurred over the islands since the 1970s. Considering the fact that China has good relations with the countries concerned, we would like to set aside this issue now and explore later a solution acceptable to both sides. We should avoid military conflict over this and should pursue an approach of joint development.
 China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ibid:
In June, 1986, Deng said to visiting Filipino Vice President Laurel: “We should leave aside the issue of the Nansha Islands for a while. We should not let this issue stand in the way of China’s friendship with the Philippines and with other countries.”
 China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ibid:
Dèng Xiǎopíng once again brought up this idea when he met visiting Filipino President Aquino in April, 1988. Deng said: “In view of the friendly relations between our two countries, we can set aside this issue for the time being and take the approach of pursuing joint development.”
 The proposal in Chinese 「搁置争议，共同开发」: http://www.mfa.gov.cn/chn/gxh/xsb/wjzs/t8958.htm
 China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ibid:
In addition to proposing the approach of “setting aside difference and pursuing joint development”, Dèng Xiǎopíng also explained China’s stand that it has sovereignty over the Nansha Islands. He explicitly pointed out that “the Nansha Islands have always been marked as part of China on the maps of the world. The Nansha Islands belong to China.” “We have many evidences. The maps of the world in many countries also prove this.” He also said to President Aquino that China is in a most authoritative position to address the issue of the Nansha Islands since they have always been a part of China’s territory.
 China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ibid:
The concept of “setting aside dispute and pursuing joint development” has the following four elements: 1. The sovereignty of the territories concerned belongs to China. 2. When conditions are not ripe to bring about a thorough solution to territorial dispute, discussion on the issue of sovereignty may be postponed so that the dispute is set aside. To set aside dispute does not mean giving up sovereignty. It is just to leave the dispute aside for the time being. 3. The territories under dispute may be developed in a joint way. 4. The purpose of joint development is to enhance mutual understanding through cooperation and create conditions for the eventual resolution of territorial ownership.