China sees no solution in sight to territorial disputes over potentially oil-rich South China Sea regions so it has begun to discuss possible joint projects with other claimant countries to avoid confrontations, a Chinese official said on Tuesday.
A joint scientific study by China, the Philippines and Vietnam to determine the prospects of striking oil or gas in a part of the contested region called the Spratlys is a model that Beijing seeks to undertake with other claimants, Ambassador Liu Jianchao said. Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam claim all or part of about 100 Spratly islets, reefs and atolls that are believed to be sitting atop vast deposits of oil and natural gas reserves.
The largely uninhabited islands and surrounding waters straddle busy sea lanes and are rich fishing grounds. The disputed islands are regarded a potential flash point for conflict in Asia. The battle for ownership of the region has settled into an uneasy standoff since the last fighting, involving China and Vietnam, killed more than 70 Vietnamese sailors in 1988. "I think the settlement of the issue will take a very long time," Liu told foreign correspondents at a news conference, citing a China-Russia border problem that took more than 50 years to resolve.
China wants to settle the disputes peacefully by engaging each claimant country in bilateral negotiations. It has opposed any attempt to include outsiders like the United States or the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the search for a solution, Liu said.
While a resolution remains elusive, China wants to enter into joint projects with other claimant countries to build confidence and "move forward," he said.
In seeking confidence-building projects, "we have a better chance for cooperation and we have less chance of confrontation," he said.
But Liu acknowledged that even such joint ventures were difficult to pursue.
A joint seismic study, part of oil exploration, that was being undertaken by Philippine National Oil Co, China National Offshore Oil Corp and Vietnam Oil and Gas Corp stalled last year when a group of Filipino lawmakers alleged that the deal violated the Philippine constitution and asked the Supreme Court to immediately halt it.
Philippine officials were forced to back off from the deal.