The Hague based International Court of Arbitration in a landmark ruling has upheld the Philippines’ claim against China over much of the contested South China Sea (SCS). The Court rejected China’s publically held position that it had historically exercised exclusive control over the SCS and its resources. The tribunal, on the contrary, ruled that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights and had caused “severe harm to the coral reef environment” by building artificial islands. Other claimants over the SCS are: Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Indonesia.
China, refusing to recognize the Court’s jurisdiction, boycotted its proceeding and issued a defiant statement that reads, “The award is invalid and has no binding force. China does not accept or recognize it.” Urging China to respect the Court’s findings, Washington called upon countries bordering the SCS to avoid “provocative statements or actions.” The Philippines Foreign Secretary (minister) that welcomed the decision urged “restraint and sobriety” among all concerned. Earlier, he had indicated that the Philippines will be ready to enter into bi-lateral negotiations with China after the judgment for joint exploration of SCS resources.
Covering an area of nearly 4 million square kilometers, $5 trillion, or one-third of commercial shipping, passes through the SCS, making it as one of the most important trade arteries in the world. With an estimated 11 billion barrels of oil, 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 12 percent of global fisheries catch; the Sea is an obvious battleground amongst countries of the region and afar.
The Chinese claim over the SCS, represented by the nine-dash line, predates Communist rule in China. It covers all the land features in the SCS, which includes ‘low tide elevation, rocks’ and small ‘islands.’ Each of these has different sea entitlements around them. China is now accused of building 3,200 square kilometers of territory by reclaiming land and building structures over it.
Though the ruling pertains to the Philippines-China dispute, it will bolster similar claims by other states against China’s 9-Dash Line; it will increase pressure on China to seek a negotiated resolution to the overlapping claims; and it will circumscribe China’s claims in the SCS. Any other course will be damaging to China’s international standing.
In the Philippines, the change of presidency seems to signal change of approach towards resolution of differences with China. For former President Aquino, whose term expired on 30 June, confronting China became a kind of personal mission. Meanwhile, President Rodrigo Duterte sent conciliatory signals while campaigning for the presidency. Now, weeks into power, Philippines Foreign Secretary Yasay Jr. revealed that the administration is in the process of nominating a special envoy to discuss easing of tensions with China. But, given the clear ruling in the Philippines’ favor, there will be limits as to how far it can go.
China believes that the U.S. Pivot to Asia concept, launched in 2012 and under which 60 percent of U.S. naval capacity is to be located in the Pacific by 2020, is an attempt to contain China’s rise. China is also wary of U.S. maneuverings and potential partnerships with Japan, India, Vietnam and the Philippines as a way to maintain control of the SCS.
Washington’s rhetoric of ‘world leadership’ or ‘prominence’ in the western Pacific has its self-fulfilling momentum and results in push-back from several states. China, uniquely placed among them, does not agree with the existing U.S.-based order.
The freedom of navigation issue in the SCS has therefore become a test of Washington’s ability to maintain its predominant role in the western Pacific region.
The U.S. actions in support of UNCLOS are hollow as the U.S. itself is not a member of the Convention. China has never interfered with commercial shipping and has assured at the highest level that there will never be a problem in the future. When China’s own economic rise depends upon freedom of navigation in the SCS, it will not interfere in commercial shipping.
China’s stand on jurisdiction over much of the SCS is therefore a natural consequence of China’s growing economic power and its need to secure its back yard. It will be a folly to underestimate China’s tenacity in pursuit of its national interests.
While China’s reclamation over the ‘rocks and land features’ may be provocative, the U.S. actions of challenging the Chinese through freedom of navigation, including two carrier-based deployments, are equally provocative. Such actions can spill into an armed conflict even by mistake.
Everyone recognizes that China will not relent on its position, and they cannot wrest control of the islands Beijing now occupies within its nine-dash line. China will also not want to be seen as the bad boy in the region and will more likely be privately accommodative of other’s positions on gaining economic advantage of their exploration’s claims. China’s ambitions need a friendly neighborhood. It must assure the ASEAN states of its benign intentions, dispelling impressions of hegemonic intentions.
All parties need to remember Professor Hans J. Morganthau’s famous rule of diplomacy: Never put yourself in a position from where you cannot advance without grave risks, or from you cannot withdraw without losing face.