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China seeks new maritime tribunal to replace UN

Anticipating an adverse decision from the UN Arbitral Tribunal on its sweeping territorial claim over almost the entire South China Sea, China has declared it would establish an international maritime center as it seeks to shore up its claim, which is at the center of an escalating regional dispute.

In a report last week, Agence France-Presse (AFP) said the declaration came as the UN tribunal prepares to decide the case related to China’s claim in the South China Sea, where it has built a series of artificial islands capable of hosting military facilities. The declaration is seen to counter mainly a case lodged by the Philippines in the UN tribunal as a means to settle competing territorial claims in the region, where China has made sweeping assertions of sovereignty. China has refused to participate in the arbitration case.

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According to the AFP, the new maritime center will help China “implement its strategy of becoming a powerful maritime country.” It quoted Zhou Qiang, head of the Supreme People’s Court, as he delivered a report at the annual session of the communist-controlled National People’s Congress. Zhou said the center would “resolutely defend China’s national sovereignty, maritime rights and interests, and other core interests.” His statement sends the message that China is taking a tough hardline stance to reinforce its gunboat diplomacy and its building of a chain of fortresses built on reclaimed land in disputed territories, including those claimed by the Philippines.

The planned maritime center is as offensive as the encroachment of China’s Coast Guard and Navy into disputed territories in the South China Sea. China’s declaration in effect means that it will establish an international maritime court supplanting the UN Arbitral Tribunal.

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Zhou said China already has a system of maritime courts that have adjudicated more than 225,000 cases since 1984. His report provided no details about how the new center would differ from existing institutions.

China has long-standing disputes over territory in the East and South China Seas, where it has aggressively pursued its claims through an increasingly muscular military posture. In recent years, the waters of the South China Sea have become the stage of confrontation for dominance between China and the United States—the world’s two largest economic and military powers. China has never clearly defined its claims to the strategic region through which about a third of the world’s trade passes.

The Philippines and several other littoral states, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, have competing claims in the South China Sea. The Philippines’ decision to take its case to the UN Arbitral Tribunal based in The Hague has infuriated China, which insists that the matter lies outside the court’s jurisdiction. Among the rival claimants, the Philippines has relatively the weakest military to pursue its claim, but last month, the government served  notice that it was not relying solely on diplomacy to enforce its claim and was beefing up its military muscle to stand up to Chinese bullying.

The government has announced that it would lease five TC-90 training aircraft from Japan to “help our Navy patrol our territory” in the Spratly Islands. The announcement drew fire from China, whose foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei warned that Beijing is “firmly opposed” to challenges to its sovereignty and security and would “remain on high alert.” He added: “Japan is not directly concerned in the South China Sea dispute.  We urge the Japanese side to mind its words and actions and refrain from undermining the peace and stability of the region.”

China’s steady buildup of military facilities in the Spratlys has prompted US officials to warn that if the buildup is left unchecked, Beijing would raise the risk of military conflict. And the New York Times reported that the scale of the multibillion-dollar effort of China has “challenged the status quo that has defined the Western Pacific since the end of World War II.”

Tension between the United States and China has spiraled, with the two sides reaffirming their unwillingness to back down. The standoff has led a top US general to say that there is “a possibility of a miscalculation” leading to conflict in the increasingly militarized region. Gen. Lori Robinson, commander of the Pacific Air Forces, said that the United States would continue to fly daily missions over the South China Sea despite China’s new missile batteries. The general urged other nations to exercise their freedom to fly and sail in international space and waters claimed by China, “or risk losing it throughout the region.”

As the New York Times reported, “While officials in Washington say China is nowhere near gaining the capacity to keep American forces out of the South China Sea, analysts say the buildup will make it more difficult for the US Navy to quickly defend allies with weaker militaries, like the Philippines.”

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TAGS: China, South China Sea, territorial dispute, tribunal, United Nations, West Philippine Sea
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