Hague ruling devastates China’s sea claim
CANBERRA—INTERNATIONAL EXPERTS ON US-China relations have weighed in behind the landmark ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague, which found China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea to have no basis in international law. The ruling was handed down by the tribunal in response to the complaint filed by the Philippines after Beijing’s seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012.
Orville Schell, Arthur Ross director of the Center on US-China Relations in Asia Society, warned that the arbitral ruling now looked destined to radically alter China’s interaction not only with its Asian neighbors but with the United States as well, because the ruling “so undermines China’s claims in the South China Sea region… Beijing finds itself at a critical juncture: It can either adjust course and seek accommodation with various claimants in these maritime disputes that have put it at odds with not only the Philippines, but with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and now even Indonesia, or it can double down and become more obdurate.”
According to Schell, what mitigates against the likelihood that China will become less obdurate and more flexible in its approach to the South China Sea is the reality that having identified these contested islands and rocks as part of its so-called core interests, it has become trapped in its own conviction that disputes involving the question of Chinese sovereignty “are never negotiable.”
As a result, China’s neighbors and the United States—which has treaty obligations with the Philippines, Japan and South Korea and growing partnerships with other Southeast Asian countries like Singapore and Vietnam—“must be ready for a much more rigid and belligerent Chinese posture… It will, of course, be the United States, who will be most immediately challenged by The Hague ruling and China’s response. For having had the Seventh Fleet long deployed in Asia and playing an important role in assuring freedom of navigation in the region, the White House will be confronted by some very difficult questions about how far it wants to go in confronting a potentially aggrieved and even more aggressive China,” the Asia Society paper noted.
Asia Society also warns that the United States faces a delicate high-wire act that must also take into account the importance of the larger US-China relationship and the need for cooperation on other crucial issues such as nuclear proliferation, climate change and global trade. How these other important issues would affect the focus of the arbitral ruling is not examined in the Asia Society paper, but it emphasizes that the interaction over the next few weeks between China and the United States and its Pacific neighbors will be crucial, for it will help cast the die for future relations in the whole region.
In the wake of the ruling, China sent strong signals that it would take all necessary measures to protect its sovereignty over the South China Sea and reiterated that it had the right to set up an air defense zone.
The Chinese state media called the Permanent Court of Arbitration a “puppet” of external forces after it ruled that China had breached Philippine sovereign rights by endangering its ships as well as its fishing and oil projects. In a government white paper published last week, Beijing called the Philippines claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea “baseless” and an “act of bad faith.”
We have yet to see how the Philippines would respond to Chinese belligerence over the arbitral ruling which resulted from the case it filed in The Hague tribunal and to China’s call for bilateral talks outside the framework of the ruling. Although the Manila government welcomed the ruling as a triumph of its diplomatic offensive to bring the case to a just resolution, it has remained ambivalent in its intentions of pursuing further steps for the implementation of the ruling. It has cautioned its diplomats not to raise the issue in international forums. It is reacting cautiously, calling for “restraint and sobriety” amid the verbal abuse and provocative statements in the Chinese media.
Amando Doronila was a regular columnist of the Inquirer from 1994 to May 2016.