After contentious South China Sea ruling, all parties need to ensure a peaceful and reasoned resolution
Beijing has already said it is still open to dialogue and the muted response from the Philippines also points to a diplomatic solution; now it’s up to the US and some of its allies to tone down the rhetoric
Smooth sailing was never going to be the outcome of a ruling by an international tribunal over a dispute in the South China Sea. Beijing was prepared for a worst-case scenario over the matter brought against it by the Philippines, but the unjustified scale and scope of the judgment on Tuesday caught it by surprise. The initial angry response was therefore understandable. Reasoned calm has replaced the outrage, though, and with continued restraint by all sides, there is every chance of a resolution through constructive diplomacy.
President Xi Jinping (習近平) made plain the nation’s position shortly after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights. From the time the case was brought in 2013, Beijing refused to participate and has repeatedly said the outcome would never be accepted. Xi reiterated that all necessary measures would be taken to protect territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests. But he also stressed that peace and stability would be maintained in the South China Sea “and on directly negotiating for a peaceful resolution on relevant disputes with states that are directly involved, based on respect of history and in accordance with international laws”.
A government policy paper on the South China Sea released yesterday laid out that position, asserting that China would not make rash decisions over territorial disputes. While it blamed the Philippines for violating agreements to settle the claims through bilateral negotiations by taking the matter to the tribunal, it said prospective talks would be based on international law. China would not recognise the ruling, but the treaty under which the case was brought, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, would be respected. The pragmatic tone erases concerns that China would take provocative action like leaving the pact or imposing an air defence identification zone over the region.
A sobre, restrained response
Prudence was also shown by the Philippines; Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay, in welcoming the decision, also called for “restraint” and “sobriety”. New President Rodrigo Duterte has changed tack on the damaging approach towards China shown by his predecessor, Benigno Aquino, who brought the case, raising the possibility of bilateral negotiations. But the message from the US and its allies, which told all parties to respect the ruling, was that China’s reputation and ambitions to become a world power would be harmed if it did otherwise.
The five-member tribunal determined China had no historic rights to the resources within the seas it claims, defined by the so-called “nine-dash line”. All of the contested Nansha Islands, also known as the Spratlys, were determined to be rocks, reefs or other marine features and therefore unable to generate a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. Among them was 46-hectare Taiping Island, occupied by Taiwan and whose main feature is an airstrip that runs its 1,400-metre length. Chinese fishing and military activities and the building of seven artificial islands were found to have caused irreparable ecological damage. The independent panel concluded China interfered with the traditional fishing rights of Filipinos and had breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights by exploring for oil and gas.
Abiding by the ruling would mean China would have to give up its claim. The US and others have made a point that to not do so would be ignoring international law. But Beijing made clear it would neither respect nor accept the tribunal’s decisions. Its refusal to participate made for a biased outcome.
On sound legal footing
But Beijing had good legal reasons not to be involved. China made a declaration in 2006 under the convention not to involve a third party to resolve disputes over maritime delimitation; 30 other countries which have ratified the pact have such an arrangement. The Philippines ignored that by going to the court and in effect making a case to adjudicate on a sovereignty claim. That is solid ground to shun and question the outcome.
The position was not well put to the international community. Beijing too often used undiplomatic language to make its case. A more sophisticated approach should be adopted.
There are concerns that Beijing’s position will lead to greater regional tensions. The US has a military agreement with its ally the Philippines and has promised to protect its territorial claims. Washington has stressed the need for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a point it has tested with warships three times since last October. China has never denied right of passage for commercial vessels, although there is always a risk of conflict should the US continue to send its surveillance ships to spy on Chinese military operations.
Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also have claims in the seas and could file cases. But they have to decide whether they want the possibility of confrontation or a peaceful resolution. The US has that same assessment to make as it continues its military-centred pivot to Asia. The steps taken by China with its white paper and the measured response of the Philippines gives cause for hope. Engaging in constructive dialogue is the obvious best strategy. It is in nobody’s interest for there to be confrontation.