Asian scientists suggest ways to reduce conflict in South China Sea

SCIENTISTS from 10 Asian countries said yesterday that they had adopted proposals aimed at reducing the potential for conflict in the South China Sea.

Among other things, they suggested the setting up of a marine-research database and information-exchange mechanism. They also stressed the need to identify habitats to conserve and protect important species in the South China Sea.

“These are confidence-building measures to promote co-operation among countries involved in the dispute,” said international-relations expert Lee Lai To at a press conference in Singapore to wrap up a five-day meeting involving 19 scientists.

The scientists are members of a working group formed by a series of non-official workshops brokered by Indonesia four years ago to look for possible solutions to the overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea.

China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei, which have claims to all or part of the Spratly islands, sent scientists to the talks along with their counterparts from Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia and Canada.

Also present at the talks were 14 government officials in their private capacities as observers.

A statement issued at the end of the meeting said that participants had agreed to review “the existing scientific information on the biodiversity of the South China Sea”.

They also recommended the establishment of a comprehensive database in the form of “responsible data centres” to compile and disseminate marine information.

Indonesian ambassador-at-large Hasjim Djalal said that the proposals would be presented at the fifth workshop on the Spratlys later this year in Indonesia.

The informal nature of the working groups and workshops, he said, would make it easier for governments “to endorse the proposals quietly without the fanfare of diplomatic and political pronouncements”.

He said the meeting had steered clear of the “political complexities” of the dispute without debating sovereignty or who owns what.

Drawing on an Indonesian proverb to explain the problems countries faced in settling the conflict in the South China Sea, he said: “It is like pulling a hair out of a bowl of powder. The hair should come out safely but the powder should not spill.”

But he was optimistic. The fact that countries had sent representatives to the talks was a sign that they wanted to resolve the dispute peacefully, he said.

Said Mr Jalal: “Everyone in the region is seeking ways to co-operate to capitalise on the political climate and peace dividend with the end of the Cold War. We should build on this.”

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