MANILA, Philippines - China's claims in the South China Sea are groundless, an Australian defense expert said at a recent Washington DC forum organized by a US think-tank.
Professor Carlyle Thayer from the Australian Defense Force Academy said at the June 27-28 gathering sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that China's so-called U-shaped line in the South China Sea is not legal.
He said the line, which China created in 1948, was drawn before the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which was signed in 1982.
The 2-day forum, entitled “The East Sea and Asia Pacific in Transition: Exploring Options for Managing Disputes” focused on maritime security concerns in the region.
The gathering took take place a week before US Secretary of State Clinton attends the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and Post-Ministerial Conference (PMC) in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Doubts over China's claim
US Senator Joseph Lieberman, in a keynote speech during the forum, also expressed doubts over China's 9-dash line.
"The lack of clarity... over the rationale for China's nine-dash line, has been especially unsettling," he said.
Lieberman said he is concerned about China’s behavior in region.
"I believe it’s pushing the region in the wrong direction and sending a message that is discouraging about what kind of great power China will be and how it will relate to its closest neighbors," he said.
"The overly broad scope, nature and basis of China’s claims are quite naturally fostering a climate of anxiety and driving other parties, most recently Vietnam and the Philippines, to fortify their own claims," he added.
Lieberman said, while the US is not a claimant in the disputes over the Spratlys, Washington has a keen interest in the area.
He said more than $1.2 trillion worth of US trade flows through the South China Sea every year.
He added that what happens in the region matters to the US because it "is a test of whether the geopolitics of a rising Asia are going to be defined by win-win cooperation or zero-sum competition."
"China’s conduct in the South China Sea will inevitably affect its relations with the U.S. and just about everyone else in the world. And in this respect, what happens in the South China Sea really is everyone’s business," Lieberman said.
China will be isolated
"When China pursues policies in the South China Sea that are heavy-handed or lack a clear basis in international law, it naturally creates distrust, increases the danger of miscalculation and leaves China, I’m afraid, more isolated in the region and in the world. That’s not an outcome that any of us should want, least of all the United States," he added.
During the forum, Lieberman praised President Benigno Aquino for his handling of the Scarborough shoal dispute.
"The de-escalation of the conflict in the Scarborough Shoal was very important. And I appreciate that President Aquino actually reacted – I think he handled it in a very balanced and sensitive way," he told Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose L. Cuisia, Jr.
The US senator said the Mutual Defense Treaty between the the US and Manila "is a matter of national obligation" for Americans.
"It’s real," he said.
He added, however, that the US should "strengthen the Philippines defensively so that no one runs the risk of trying to take advantage" of the country.
Lieberman said Washington and Manila are holding discussion "the US Senate Armed Services Committee is interested in, which are aimed particularly to give (the Philippines) some greater defensive capabilities."
Kurt Campbell, US Assistant State Secretary for East Asia and the Pacific, said Clinton will take the lead on high-level diplomacy in the region.
"The secretary will be rolling out some specific initiatives when she visits Southeast Asia in the next few weeks," he said.
Praise for Aquino
He also praised the Philippines and President Benigno Aquino's handling of the South China Sea issues.
"I must commend our colleagues in the Philippines who, I think, are working hard to ensure that peace and stability prevails," Campbell said.
"This is one of the best governments we’ve seen in decades. We want to support that government," he said.
He described Aquino recent visit to the US as a success.
"He is tackling corruption in his country in a way that we have not seen in over a generation," Campbell said.