WASHINGTON/BEIJING - China warned other countries Wednesday against threatening its security in the South China Sea after an international tribunal handed the Philippines a victory by saying Beijing had no legal basis for its expansive claims there.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said Beijing could declare an air defense identification zone over the waters if it felt threatened, a move that would sharply escalate tensions. But Beijing also extended an olive branch to the new Philippine government, saying the Southeast Asian nation would benefit from cooperating with China.
The Philippines, under a U.N. treaty governing the seas, sought arbitration from an international tribunal on several issues related to its long-running territorial disputes with China.
The tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, rejected China’s claims in a landmark ruling that also found the country had aggravated the seething regional dispute and violated the Philippines’ maritime rights by building up artificial islands that destroyed coral reefs and by disrupting fishing and oil exploration.
While introducing a policy paper in response to the ruling, Liu said the islands in the South China Sea were China’s “inherent territory” and blamed the Philippines for stirring up trouble.
“If our security is being threatened, of course we have the right to demarcate a zone. This would depend on our overall assessment,” Liu said in a briefing. “We hope that other countries will not take this opportunity to threaten China and work with China to protect the peace and stability of the South China Sea, and not let it become the origin of a war.”
In 2013, China set up an air defense identification zone over disputed islands in the East China Sea, requiring all aircraft entering the area to notify Chinese authorities or be subjected to “emergency military measures” if they disobey orders from Beijing. The U.S. and others refuse to recognize the zone.
While blaming the previous Philippine government for complicating the dispute by seeking arbitration, Liu also sought to strike a conciliatory note with the Southeast Asian nation’s new leadership. Liu said China remains committed to negotiations with the Philippines and noting new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s positive remarks on the issue.
“After the storm of this arbitration has passed, and the sky has cleared, we hope this day (of negotiations) will come quickly, but whether it can come, we still have to wait,” Liu said, adding that China believed that cooperation would also bring Filipinos “tangible benefits.”
He said, however, that China hoped the new government would not use the arbitration results — which China has declared null and void — as a basis for negotiations. China believes cooperation with other South China Sea neighbors, whether in fishing or in exploiting oil and gas resources in the waters, could be achieved by negotiations, he said.
Duterte has not directly responded to China’s overtures since the ruling was issued Tuesday. China has been on a charm offensive and Duterte is navigating a tightrope in which he wants to revive relations with Beijing while being seen as defending the major victory the country has won through arbitration.
Although the decision is seen as a major legal declaration regarding one of the world’s most contested regions, its impact is uncertain given the tribunal has no power of enforcement.
While the findings cannot reverse China’s actions, they still constitute a rebuke, carrying with it the force of the international community’s opinion. It also gives heart to small countries in Asia that have helplessly chafed at China’s expansionism, backed by its military and economic power.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, told an international forum in Washington on Tuesday that China remains committed to negotiations with other parties in disputes over the vital trade route.
He blamed the rise in tension in the region on the United States’ “pivot” toward Asia in the past few years, and said the arbitration case “will probably open the door of abusing arbitration procedures.”
“It will certainly undermine and weaken the motivation of states to engage in negotiations and consultations for solving their disputes,” Cui said. “It will certainly intensify conflict and even confrontation.”
China boycotted the arbitration hearings and described them as a farce.
Legal experts and Asia policy specialists said China risks violating international law if it continues to strike a defiant tone and ignores the ruling.
The United States, which China has accused of fueling tensions and militarizing the region with patrols and exercises, said the ruling should be treated as final and binding.
“We certainly would urge all parties not to use this as an opportunity to engage in escalatory or provocative action,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
The ruling is the first time that a legal challenge has been brought in the dispute. The victory for the Philippines could spur Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei to file similar cases on their claims to the waters.
China’s Foreign Ministry rejected the tribunal’s ruling, saying its people have more than 2,000 years of history in the South China Sea, that its islands do have exclusive economic zones and that it had announced to the world its “dotted line” map in 1948.
Cui told the forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that China “will do everything possible to safeguard the unimpeded flow of commerce and stop any attempt to destabilize the region.”
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said Washington has seen signs in recent weeks of continued militarization by China in the South China Sea.
President Barack Obama’s top Asia policy adviser, Daniel Kritenbrink, said the United States has no interest in stirring tensions in the South China Sea as a pretext for involvement in the region.
“We have an enduring interest in seeing territorial and maritime disputes in the Asia-Pacific, including in the South China Sea, resolved peacefully, without coercion and in a manner that is consistent with international law,” Kritenbrink said at the CSIS forum.
U.S. ally Australia warned against “unilateral actions” by any claimants.
“Australia will continue to exercise our international law rights to freedom of navigation and overflight, and support the right of others to do so,” Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in a statement.
International law experts said the ruling brought the United States, China and Southeast Asia to a dangerous crossroads.
“This is a tactical victory for the Philippines and a strategic defeat for international law,” said Chas Freeman, a former U.S. diplomat who was President Richard Nixon’s interpreter on his historic trip to China in 1972. “This decision has left the issue in the condition where it can only be resolved by the use of force. There is no diplomatic process underway to settle claims, and now there’s no longer a legal process.”
Julia Guifang Xue, a professor of international law at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, said that given Beijing’s sensitivity about sovereignty and security, “We won’t be surprised to see some kind of renewed effort by China to consolidate its claim in the area.”
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on all parties to resolve the disputes in a “peaceful and amicable manner through dialogue and in conformity with international law.”
China claims most of the energy-rich waters, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.
Ruling in favor of the Philippines on a number of issues, the court said there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within its so-called nine-dash line, which covers almost 90 percent of the South China Sea.
None of China’s reefs and holdings in the Spratly Islands entitled it to a 200-nautical-mile (370-km) exclusive economic zone, it added.
The judges acknowledged China’s refusal to participate but said they sought to take account of China’s position from its statements and diplomatic correspondence.
Taiwan, which maintains that the island it occupies, Itu Aba, is legally the only island among hundreds of reefs, shoals and atolls scattered across the seas, said it did not accept the ruling, which seriously impaired Taiwan’s territorial rights in the 3.5-million-sq. km sea.
Fellow claimant Malaysia said it believed disputes could be resolved by diplomatic and legal processes.
A U.S. official who helps set the administration’s Asia policies said that, faced with the prospect of continuing Chinese assertiveness, it is important for countries in the region and for the United States to avoid provocative actions and leave the door open for Beijing to pursue peaceful solutions “and avoid making matters worse.”
He also said, however, that the United States must honor its defense commitments in the Pacific and reassure the Philippines, Vietnam and China’s other neighbors that it would not abandon them or Obama’s pledge to devote more resources to Asian security.
Amarjit Singh, a senior consultant at IHS Country Risk, predicted that after the ruling, the U.S. would undertake “freedom of navigation” patrols and flights within the area claimed by China to reinforce the arbitration’s findings that various Chinese claims there are not valid.
U.S. lawmakers are urging such action. Influential Republican Sen. John McCain was among those calling Monday for the U.S. to regularly challenge “China’s excessive maritime claims.”
Since the tribunal ruled that some of China’s artificial islands are “low tide elevations” that are not entitled to 12 nautical miles (22 km) of territorial sea, the U.S. may be tempted to sail closer than it has in the past.
“In theory we could sail within 500 meters” of Mischief Reef, said Michael McDevitt, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral with long experience in the Pacific, referring to one of the reclaimed islands, about 130 miles (210 kilometers) off the Philippine coast.
Cui said such operations are a threat to freedom of navigation by commercial and civilian vessels.
He compared Obama’s strategic “pivot” to boost the U.S. presence in the relatively stable Asia-Pacific to American interventions in Middle East countries such as Iraq, Libya and Syria — implying that it could lead to turmoil.