Think tank examines South China Sea

Updated: 2014-02-24 03:30

By WU JIAO and ZHANG YUNBI (China Daily)

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Nanjing University hosts research, debate on strategic maritime issues

China is building a national think tank on South China Sea research to boost the country's maritime power strategy and deal with looming maritime disputes.

Established in October 2012, the Collaborative Innovation Center for South China Sea Studies, based at Nanjing University in Jiangsu province, is among the 14 national-level research projects prioritized and supported by the government since 2013.

Hong Yinxing, chairman of the board for the center, said it was established to meet the country's strategic demand to safeguard maritime rights and interests, develop resources and energy, and promote regional peace and development.

Covering 3.5 million square kilometers, the South China Sea is home to vast natural resources — including oil and gas — and gathers major international maritime routes. China said it has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters, including the Nansha Islands.

Since the 1970s, several countries in the region have challenged China's sovereignty over the islands. The Philippines has hyped and exaggerated the disputes in recent years to fan regional tensions.

Hong, who is also Party chief of Nanjing University, said the complexity of the maritime issue has required the country's research sector to eliminate barriers among the subjects and agencies to improve efficiency.

The center should also play a leading role in figuring out the key mid-and-long-term projects, and in building a cooperation mechanism to gather efforts from different research fields, the military and those agencies that need the information, Hong said.

Based in Nanjing University, the center has already attracted top researchers to conduct studies on a comprehensive range of issues regarding the South China Sea and to provide supporting information and policy advice.

"The center will become a high-end think tank for South China Sea policymaking, a dialogue platform for international communication, and a training center for outstanding talents on maritime affairs," Hong said.

The university has a long history of studying the South China Sea. It helped the then-Kuomintang government decide on maritime borders in the sea and give Chinese, English and French names to the various islands in the 1940s.

The university has cooperated with other research agencies in providing more comprehensive information on the South China Sea than any other think tank.

The center has built cooperative relationships with counterparts in Taiwan that have abundant historical documents on the sea. The center has also worked with counterparts in countries such as the United States.

So far, the new think tank has accomplished a range of studies, including examples of joint maritime development, law enforcement, and international arbitration case regarding the Philippines.

Hong said the center has built up a new model of think tank that is devoted to basic research but will respond to the country's emergency strategic demands. It is also pushing forward the exploration of translating its scientific research into market products.

Skills shortage

The tough prospects for China's maritime sovereignty have raised concerns over the national shortage of qualified maritime-affairs personnel skilled in international dialogue and cooperation.

Hong said one of his center's top goals is to cultivate interdisciplinary experts on maritime affairs to address urgent issues, including the protection of rights and interests, resource development and international liaison.

The center has added 41 PhD tutors and 12 divisions for cultivating postgraduates. It plans to cultivate some 100 doctoral students and 300 master's-degree students within four years.

"The training is no longer geographically dispersed, and the number of trainees has grown rapidly," Hong said.

"The new cultivation style gathers maritime talent in different subjects and sciences, prompts them to learn from each other, facilitates brainstorming and then gives a boost to the integration and comprehensiveness of research. This is something unimaginable in the past."

Hong said as one of the urgent tasks for the center is collecting evidence to safeguard China's rights and interests in the South China Sea, and the center is building a comprehensive database of information for this purpose.

Although other institutions have already built databases to gather documents related to maritime studies, establishing a comprehensive database of fundamental information is of great urgency for Chinese researchers.

The center has obtained 30,000 documents from a range of institutions. Two atlases have been compiled, including geological information and detailing the evolving situation in the area.

The center has also effectively promoted China's research regarding the sea, and a senior expert also lauded its contribution to the industry.

Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said Chinese think tanks traditionally place more emphasis on historical studies than legal studies, and the aging of scholars is also a problem.

"With such serious challenges in the maritime situation, the center functions as a national think tank and is capable of integrating resources and addressing challenges, which is of huge significance," Wu said.

The center will facilitate China's ambition of having a bigger say in the world as well as its public diplomacy, and it is expected to reduce the waste of research resources, Wu said.

According to Hong, in a bid to build the center into a leading national-level think tank, the center will facilitate its exchanges with top overseas think tanks to learn from their advanced methods of working.

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