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South China Sea Dispute: Are Bilateral or Multilateral Talks the only solution?

By Nadia Vong, TIME

Published: 18 Mar 2019 - 08:46 PM

South China Sea claims map

South China Sea claims map

All nations involved in the ASEAN Regional Forum, including ASEAN members, China, Japan, the United States of America and other Asia Pacific countries recognised the importance of maritime safety, anti-piracy within Asia-Pacific region and cooperation between countries in terms of resource-sharing. They also emphasised the huge potential and benefits that would be brought by the maritime trade in the South China Sea.

However, countries, especially China have been continuously claiming ownership in different parts of the region in the past few decades which contributed to the escalating tension regarding the South China Sea Dispute. In the forum, countries such as China, Indonesia and Pakistan held a strong stand that the sovereignty of territories was not to be challenged.

All delegates agreed that the disputes had to be solved in a peaceful way such that the conduct of diplomacy between countries would not be compromised. As a result, all delegates had come to a consensus that this should be done through negotiations.

The rest of the debate was surrounded by different opinions in whether the negotiations should be done through bilateral talks or multilateral talks. Vietnam and Thailand, who were particularly against bilateral talks stated that China is a large major power. Hence, bilateral talks would contribute to China’s domination over the small countries and result in unfair solutions being made. China, who strongly opposed to Vietnam’s and Thailand’s stands, stated that China was always open to fair negotiations and countries who were irrelevant in the issue should not be involved. The China delegate continued by giving an example of the negotiation between the United Kingdom and China in 1997 over the ownership of Hong Kong, highlighting that China was never biased towards any countries.

At the end of the session, all delegates were able to come to an agreement. Although China remained its stand throughout the session, all agreed that bilateral and multilateral talks should be applied to different situations, given the evidence provided by Vietnam that most disputes link many countries together and affect one another. One proposed idea by Singapore is that bilateral talks can involve a third party who is neutral to make sure that the solutions are fair and unbiased. All in all, the countries will continue to propose new ideas to effectively settle the disputes and head towards a safer and more peaceful Asia Pacific.