The Western Pacific has become an important arena for the US execution of its “return to the Asia-Pacific” strategy, and the maritime disputes between China and its neighbors have been used by the US as an excuse to pursue this strategy. The moves taken by the US, such as meddling in South China Sea affairs and frequently creating troubles, are aimed to contain China, dominate the Asia-Pacific, and defend its primacy in the world. As the US sees it, with the US-Japan Security Treaty serving as the bedrock of the post-WWII order in East Asia, and the establishment of the US-ROK military alliance, the situation in Northeast Asia and the East China Sea already features a good balance, and there is no need to strive for rebalance. The political, economic, military and diplomatic efforts made by the US to promote the “Asia-Pacific rebalance strategy” are mainly targeted at the South China Sea and Southeast Asia. Through the prism of this background, it is not hard to find out who is the real force behind the South China Sea arbitration case.
1. The US instigated the Philippines to unilaterally initiate the arbitration in an attempt to launch a legal and public opinion war against China.
Before the Philippines suddenly initiated the arbitration, it had all along maintained consultation with China on the South China Sea issue under the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and a number of bilateral mechanisms. In 2010, the US announced its decision to “return to the Asia-Pacific”, claiming that it has “national interests” in the South China Sea, and that it will continue to keep a strong and permanent presence in Asia and use its power to build a rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific. It expressed its support for the Philippines in resolving the South China Sea disputes through international arbitration, asking the latter not to be afraid of any reprisal, including intimidation or coercion. Since the initiation of the arbitration by the Philippines in 2013, the US has been urging China to accept and participate in the arbitration, and launched an international publicity campaign to support the Philippines and tarnish China’s reputation.
2. The US has provided multifaceted assistance to the Philippines in support of its arbitration activities.
The US has given advisory, financial, legal, military, diplomatic and a host of other support to the Philippines as the latter challenges China. To begin with, the South China Sea arbitration legal team of the Philippines is mainly composed of American lawyers, and the “down payment” for the arbitration was earmarked by some American institutions. The US has offered relevant military backing and assistance to the Philippines. On the basis of the US-Philippines military alliance treaty and a series of military cooperation agreements, in April 2014, the US and the Philippines signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, and in March 2016, the two countries reached an agreement that allows for rotational deployment of US forces at five Philippine military bases. The lion’s share of the 425 million dollar offered by the US under the Southeast Asia Security Initiative will be used for the Philippines’ maritime capacity building. The US has also promised to provide military protection to the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty if conflicts arise between China and the Philippines. The increasing US military support has emboldened the Philippines in its arrogant stance toward China.
3. The US has manipulated and put pressure on the Arbitral Tribunal in the South China Sea arbitration.
On Dec 5, 2014, the US State Department published Limits in the Seas — China: Maritime Claims in the South China Sea, which denies the legality of China’s dotted line and its relevant claims in the South China Sea. The US intention to support the Philippines’ arbitration submissions and exert influence and pressure on the Arbitral Tribunal is obvious. To support the arbitration process, the US sent military vessels and planes to intrude into the 12-nautical mile sea area of the relevant islands and reefs in the South China Sea to carry out the so-called “freedom of navigation” operations. As the Arbitral Tribunal is about to render its final award, the US calls on its “regional and global partners” to take measures to bolster the rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific.
4. The US has drawn its allies and other countries over to put pressure on China over the South China Sea issue and the South China Sea arbitration.
The US instigates its allies and “partners” to challenge China on the pretext of the South China Sea arbitration. The US initiated “joint patrols” by India, Japan, Australia and the US in the Asia-Pacific and the establishment of an informal strategic alliance; it proposed that ASEAN countries build South China Sea joint patrol force, and said its Seventh Fleet would offer support in this regard; it prodded Japan to extend its air patrol to the South China Sea; it completely lifted the ban on arms sales to Vietnam, and trained Vietnamese coast guards to improve the country’s maritime operation capability. In addition, the US has tried to persuade and pressure countries across the world to support the Philippines and oppose, or at least not expressly support China’s position on the South China Sea issue.
5. The US has taken various measures to force China to implement the South China Sea arbitration award.
On China’s position of not accepting and not participating in the South China Sea arbitration, the US says that it is the view of the US and its allies that international arbitration must be respected, and China will have to pay a price if it refuses to do so. Besides, the US has stepped up its “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea in an attempt to challenge through military means China’s claims to sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea, so as to intervene in China’s internal affairs and put pressure on China.
6. The US has urged the Taiwan authorities to give up its claims to historic rights in the South China Sea and not to cooperate with the mainland over the South China Sea issue.
To sum up, the US is the real arbitrator in the South China Sea arbitration case, and the Philippines is being used by the US merely as a pawn to serve the strategic interests of the US. It is precisely because we have seen through this that we choose to resist the South China Sea arbitration — a political farce under the cloak of law — and reject any award that comes out of the arbitration.
Wang Hanling, Director of the Center for Ocean Affairs and the Law of the Sea of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and research fellow of China South China Sea Research Coordination and Innovation Center.
Zheng Yaran, post-graduate from the Department of Law of the Graduate School of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.