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Statement on Motion 92 to Urge the Government to take the steps necessary to de-escalate tensions and restore peace and stability in the South China Sea

Honourable colleagues, I rise today to speak to the motion introduced by Senator Ngo calling on the government to take steps to restore peace and stability in the South China Sea.

I will use this opportunity to do two things. First, I want to bring to your attention recent developments in the management of disputes in the South China Sea. Second, I want to call for a deeper examination of the complex and often poorly understood factors contributing to the intractability of this situation.

The South China Sea is strategically important and resource rich. It is home to a quarter of the world’s population and contains a wealth of natural resources. It is also one of the major sea lanes in the world, which makes maintaining uninterrupted passage for commercial shipping a key concern.

The South China Sea is also the site of several territorial and maritime disputes. Brunei, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines have made claims to its land, sea and resources. The United States, Japan, and Australia also have substantial interests in the region.

The disputes in the South China Sea are not new, but have received attention in recent years due to incidents that have led to fluctuating tensions.The most recent round of tensions can be traced to a lengthy standoff in 2012 between the Philippines and China in the Scarborough Shoal, an area rich in fish stocks claimed by both countries. Relations between the two countries deteriorated as a result of ongoing clashes between military and fishing vessels. In 2013, the Philippines launched an arbitration case against China’s claims in the South China Sea in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

China refused to take part in the proceedings, arguing that the tribunal had no jurisdiction on the matter and that it would not abide by its decision.It is important to note China made a declaration in 2006 under article 298 of the Convention to exclude matters relating to maritime boundary delimitation from compulsory arbitration. Various countries, including Canada, filed similar declarations. After the tribunal sided in favour of the Philippines this past July, some argued that the proceedings had a limited impact on the situation. Following reports of escalating tensions and military conflict, there were concerns that the region was spiraling towards a full scale disaster. But these fears did not materialize.

In the past months, there has been a complete reversal in the diplomatic relations between the Philippines and China. On October 20, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, welcomed the newly-elected President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, to Beijing. During the official state visit, both countries agreed to resume direct talks on their disputes in the South China Sea. They also set-out to establish a joint coast guard committee on maritime cooperation. A week following the visit, it was reported that Philippine fishing boats returned to the Scarborough Shoal. This outcome would have been unimaginable when Manila and Beijing were at a standstill, especially because the Chinese Coast Guard had restricted access to this area for the past four years.

This past Monday, it was reported that the Philippines declared a marine sanctuary and no-fishing zone at a lagoon within the Scarborough Shoal. China has yet to officially confirm whether it will support this move.The establishment of a protected marine zone, if successful, could contribute to the reconciliation efforts between the Philippines and China.

Honourable colleagues, I am cautiously optimistic about these new developments.

Due to the number of claimants and the complexity of the claims, a permanent solution to the disputes in the South China Sea is not yet in sight. The fact of the matter is that the historical, political and emotional elements involved often contribute to minimizing opportunities for cooperation.

For countries with competing claims, the South China Sea is a core component of their identity, sovereignty and interests. Even a small loss of a claimed area can be seen as a direct threat to the integrity of the country and provide the basis for nationalist narratives. It is for this reason that the importance of using less inflammatory language and exercising restraint cannot be understated. Claimant countries need a conducive atmosphere to build trust and find common ground.To this end, this Chamber should focus on promoting dialogue and cooperation–not adding fuel to an already burning fire.

Throughout our debate, there have been growing concerns over China’s actions in the South China Sea. A fact that continues to be disregarded is that China has frequently used cooperative means to manage its territorial conflicts. China has settled twelve of its fourteen land border disputes, usually receiving less than 50 percent of the contested land.

These precedents demonstrate that it is possible for China to engage in the peaceful settlement of disputes. Countries in the region have engaged in friendly negotiations on-and-off for years with various degrees of success. In fact, it took Vietnam and China over four decades to reach a mutually accepted boundary and fishing agreement in the Gulf of Tonkin in 2000. This is the first agreement that China has signed with one of its neighbours to delimit maritime boundaries.

Another aspect to consider is that China has shown flexibility by suggesting that disputes are set aside in favour of the joint development of natural resources. Most of the claimant countries in the South China Sea have shown interest in these types of arrangements, especially for the joint exploration of oil and natural gas resources. Examples include Japan and China in 2008, China and Vietnam in 2009, and Malaysia and Brunei in 2009. More recently China and the Philippines have also discussed the potential of working together to discover and exploit offshore energy deposits in the Scarborough Shoal.

These examples show that countries in the region can come together in the spirit of cooperation to reduce tensions and mitigate conflict. While it may seem difficult for countries in the region to abandon their hardline positions and agree that their shared aim is cooperation–it is not without precedent.

Colleagues, progress takes time. We need to understand that it may take years to formally manage and settle the disputes in the South China Sea. It is my opinion that our current debate requires more context. This is not entirely our fault, but rather a result of time constraints. In order to fully understand why disputes in the South China Sea continue to seem difficult to resolve, we need to have a better understanding of it.

I am not an expert on this matter, but I believe that all countries in the region have vested interests in maintaining peace and stability. After all, failing to do so could have considerable economic, political and humanitarian consequences. China is no exception because its continued economic and social development is heavily dependent on trade and resources. Maintaining open waterways in the South China Sea for commercial shipping is to China’s long term advantage. A potential military conflict could not only slow down domestic progress and development, but also seriously disrupt neighbouring economies and their populations. Given that countries in the region are so interconnected and reliant on each other, the stakes are simply too high. I am therefore inclined to believe that China, like its neighbours, has every incentive to restore stability and minimize risks.

Let me be perfectly clear. I do not mean to condone the actions of any of the claimant countries in the South China Sea. I simply mean to say that it is in the interest of all countries to ensure that the region remains peaceful and prosperous.

Honourable senators, there has been no shortage of recommendations on how to settle the disputes. Most countries have supported the use of international law. Yet these same countries are not always willing to a-bide by such norms, particularly when national interests are perceived to be threatened.This is evidenced by the fact that no permanent member of the United Nations Security Council has ever com-plied with a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration or the International Court of Justice.

I do not want to diminish the importance of international law. However, we cannot disregard the role of bilateral and multilateral arrangements in promoting conflict resolution. In the context of the South China Sea, myself and others would defend the use of negotiations and dialogues in accordance with international law–especially because these exchanges have set the foundation for how disputes have and will continue to be resolved.

Colleagues, I have lived in Malaysia and Singapore. I have travelled extensively throughout Asia Pacific. I not only maintain strong family and friendship ties in the region, but have also gained a deep understanding and appreciation for this part of the world.

I am hopeful that claimant countries in the South China Sea will find a mutually acceptable solution. If not during my lifetime then in the lifetime of the next generation. I know that this is the only way to ensure the security and prosperity of the people in the region and the rest of the world.

Colleagues, as Senator Martin noted in June, the Government of Canada has previously abstained from taking sides on territorial and maritime disputes in which it is not directly involved. Previous experiences have taught us that our perceived neutrality better positions us to bring opposite sides to consensus. We did so successfully during the South China Sea dialogues in the 1990s which acted as confidence building measures at a time of escalating tensions.

While there are various measures that could help restore trust and confidence among countries in the South China Sea, one of our main concerns should be to ensure that our involvement is amicable and effective.

These are discussion that we need to have to ensure that we are part of the solution and not the problem.

Before I conclude, I would like you to think about the following. This motion asks us to take a collective position regarding the disputes in the South China Sea. But it does not provide us with an opportunity to fully consider the complexity of these disputes. I strongly feel that is not appropriate to make this decision without giving this matter the attention it deserves.

For these reasons, I will not support this motion.

Colleagues, I urge you to carefully consider why this Chamber should not support this motion.


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