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CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The tiny Spratly Islands are dwarfed by the magnitude of the sovereignty and demarcation problems that surround them.

Recently, China came forward with a “code of conduct” for the islands. The proposal is a positive development despite the question marks it raises. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has also proposed its own code of conduct. Officials will soon try to reconcile the two texts.

Academics around the world are studying the Spratly dispute. Recently, Phiphat Tangsubkul, a Thai specialist on ocean law, proposed that:

1) an agreement be established guaranteeing freedom of navigation;

2) an agreement be made respecting historical fishing rights; and

3) sovereignty disputes be restricted to the respective claimants.

At the risk of being accused of being overly utopian, a neutral mediator could propose the following ideas:

First, all parties should admit that the continuation of “first come, first serve” could lead to more serious complications. It is clear, therefore, that increased dialogue would benefit all involved.

All claimants should clarify, in the case a multilateral framework is emasculated, if not outright rejected, whether they would opt for bilateral negotiations or recourse at the International Court of Justice.

These proposals reflect hard, political realities. But perhaps other, more modest, steps of a technical nature could also be considered.

The technical blueprint presented below represents a huge task, but it must be dispassionately undertaken by reputable academics and analysts.

Phase 1:

* Every detail regarding the validity of historic arguments on sovereignty must be verified.

* A chronological order of physical occupation of the islands must be established.

* Maps must be made to identify various claims.

* Overlapping claims must be recognized.

* Areas where potential disputes could arise over resources should be identified by international oil consortiums.

* A study should be made of all aggressive actions taken to the present.

* A list must be made of existing fishing agreements and traditional fishing zones.

Phase 2:

* Maps must be drawn up on the basis of new, generally accepted notions of the law of the sea that show continental shelves and economic zones. Such a map would reflect overlapping claims, which could then be resolved in accordance with new, international legal trends.

* Studies of oil and natural gas potential must be integrated and analyzed.

Phase 3:

A list of concrete suggestions aimed at an eventual solution must be compiled. This gradual approach to resolving the Spratly Islands dispute presupposes that such an exercise would be undertaken in an atmosphere free of provocative actions. A moratorium on additional actions involving territorial claims should be implemented to prevent the situation from becoming worse.

Such a phased effort could influence in a more realistic way the thinking of policymakers. It could also enrich present codes of conduct, as well as serve as a basis of discussions before the next meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum, at least to the extent that relevant deliberations are accepted by Beijing.

Historic realities must be examined through the prism of new interpretations of the law of the sea. After all, these new codifications and perceptions oblige us all to live together in peace. The international community must strive to preserve and share the world’s precious natural resources, which are dwindling at a dangerous rate.

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