Transcript of Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng's Interview with the Press on "UNCLOS at 40: Retrospect and Prospect"
Q1: Please brief us on the conference and the purpose of China in hosting it.
Xie: At present, the world is facing once-in-a-century changes that are evolving more rapidly, and new issues keep emerging in global maritime governance. By holding this conference on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the opening for signature of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China, as a State Party, aims to pool wisdom, encourage various sides to take stock of the history of the Convention and revisit its purposes and principles, and promote global maritime cooperation and governance.
More than 200 delegates, including government officials, representatives of international organizations, experts and scholars, have attended the conference. State Councilor Wang Yi delivered important remarks, in which he expounded on China's position on the Convention, and called on various sides to act as a community with a shared future to promote sustainable development of the sea, champion dialogue and consultation to maintain peace and tranquility of the sea, promote international cooperation to preserve the ecological environment of the sea, and uphold the international rule of law to jointly usher in a new journey of maritime governance. In his opening remarks, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Mr. Miguel de Serpa Soares encouraged efforts to address new challenges including marine biodiversity and marine pollution in the spirit of the Convention. I also made a keynote report on China's implementation of UNCLOS in full and in good faith and its active contribution to global maritime cooperation and governance. Participants will have in-depth discussions on the achievements and contribution of the Convention over the past four decades and new frontiers of the Law of the Sea, and explore the pathway to maritime cooperation and governance.
Q2: What role has the Convention played in the past 40 years? Are there any problems and what is your expectation of it in the future?
Xie: The Convention is an extensive legal instrument on maritime affairs, which takes into account the interests of various types of countries, including coastal states, flag states and land-locked states. It has played an important role in helping mankind to understand, protect and utilize the ocean in a sustainable way. The three bodies established by the Convention, namely, the International Seabed Authority, the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, have become important mechanisms for global maritime governance and provided useful platforms for discussing and resolving maritime issues.
At the same time, the Convention has not exhausted all issues related to the Law of the Sea. Matters such as historic rights and outlying archipelagos continue to be governed by customary international law. When the Convention was adopted 40 years ago, issues such as sea level rise, ocean acidification and unmanned vessels were not yet acute, so there is no specific provision in the Convention about such new issues. Also, in its implementation, there have been cases of misinterpretation and even abuse of its procedures, which have undermined the sanctity and authority of the Convention.
The Convention is an open, inclusive and ever-evolving legal framework. It affirms that "matters not regulated by this Convention continue to be governed by the rules and principles of general international law." Since the adoption of the Convention, two agreements, one on the international seabed and the other on fish stocks, have been concluded, and negotiations on an international agreement on maritime biodiversity are now well underway. As long as various sides abide by the spirit of the Convention and continue to enrich international maritime laws including UNCLOS, the Convention will surely continue to play an important role in future global maritime governance.
Q3: As a State Party, how does China view the role of the Convention in settling disputes in the South China Sea?
Xie: It is China's consistent position that maritime disputes should be settled by the states directly concerned through negotiation and consultation on the basis of respecting historical facts and international law. This is in line with the Convention, and is also the successful experience of the majority of countries. It is the most effective way to peacefully settle maritime disputes.
Regarding the role of the Convention in resolving disputes in the South China Sea, I would like to emphasize two points: First, relevant disputes involve not only maritime delimitation but also territorial issues. Territorial issues should be settled mainly based on international law such as the UN Charter, and in settling maritime disputes, relevant treaties and customary international law apart from the Convention should also be considered. Second, the dispute settlement mechanism of the Convention respects the voluntary choice of the parties to the dispute. In 2006, in accordance with the Convention, China solemnly declared that it excludes maritime delimitation among others from the compulsory procedures of UNCLOS. Meanwhile, there is a long-standing important consensus between China and relevant neighbouring countries that disputes should be settled through negotiation and consultation.
In 2000, China and Vietnam signed an agreement on maritime delimitation in the Beibu Gulf through negotiations. China is committed to making temporary arrangements with relevant countries on sea-related issues in the spirit of UNCLOS before relevant disputes are completely resolved. At present, China has established bilateral consultation mechanisms on maritime affairs with countries including the Philippines and Vietnam, and is actively promoting maritime joint development with neighboring countries. China seeks to build friendships and partnerships with its neighbors. We will continue to work with relevant countries and follow the dual-track approach jointly proposed by China and ASEAN countries, to boost maritime dialogue, exchanges and practical cooperation, properly manage differences, and promote prosperity and development in the South China Sea and the region. At the same time, we will continue to follow the guidance of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), and strive to reach at a faster pace an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) that is consistent with international law including UNCLOS, so as to provide stronger institutional safeguards for managing differences and advancing cooperation.
Q4: What efforts has China made for the adoption of the Convention and its implementation? How will China further promote the role of the Convention in the future?
Xie: China has always actively participated in, developed and contributed to the Convention and its institutions.
At present, the world is facing the combined impacts of changes unseen in a century and the COVID-19 pandemic, and the issues of marine environmental protection and sustainable development are becoming more prominent. China stands ready to work with various sides to continue championing the purposes and principles of UNCLOS, and carry forward the spirit of true multilateralism embodied in the Convention. It is important to take into account the interests of different countries and uphold humanity's common interests, and take credible steps to raise developing countries' capability of marine scientific research and governance. It is important to fully and accurately interpret and apply UNCLOS in good faith and in its entirety, discard the mindset of "might is right", oppose selective application of the Convention, uphold and advance an equitable and just international maritime order, and improve the global governance of the sea.
Q5: The United States is not a party to UNCLOS. Nevertheless, it has accused China of violating the Convention on multiple occasions, and kept ramping up the so-called "freedom of navigation operations" in the South China Sea to challenge China's rights and claims. What's your comment on this?
Xie: As early as during the negotiations on the Convention, the US dismissed the concerns of developing countries, persistently opposed taking the international seabed and its resources as the common heritage of mankind, and planned to set up another system outside UNCLOS to obstruct its adoption. While opposing the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) regime proposed by developing countries during the negotiations, the US has claimed the world's largest EEZ after the Convention was adopted. Till today, the US is yet to ratify the Convention, emphasizing that it is not subject to UNCLOS procedures. But at the same time, it has played up the supremacy of the Convention out of ulterior motives, arbitrarily used it as a tool to smear, contain and suppress other countries. The truth is that the US wants only the benefits of the Convention without fulfilling its obligations, and is saying one thing while doing another. It is in no position whatsoever to cite UNCLOS to accuse others. The so-called "freedom of navigation operations" of the US are actually intended to boycott UNCLOS regimes such as the EEZ, maintain US maritime hegemony, and allow its warships and military flights to continue having their way without restraint on the sea. But in recent years, the US has put the blame on others instead, and frequently challenged other countries' maritime claims under the pretext of freedom of navigation, without any basis in international law including the Law of the Sea. China's position and claims concerning the South China Sea have solid historical and legal grounds. There has never been and will never be any problem with the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The US has breached general international law principles, including the prohibition on the threat or use of force, by flexing its military muscle to challenge other countries' claims and threaten other countries' security and maritime rights and interests. Such unlawful attempts to pursue the law of the jungle at sea run counter to the trend of the times, and have been understandably firmly rejected by China and other members of the international community.