In the case brought by the Philippines against China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, including massive land reclamation in disputed territory, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague this week ruled overwhelmingly in favor of Manila. China has reacted strongly against the decision, declaring that it will not accept the ruling. But the ruling based on the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea — legally binding though carrying no penalties — is final and cannot be appealed. Beijing should think again about whether its uncompromising attitude is appropriate if it wants to be a respectable member of the international community.
The ruling said “there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line,’ ” a U-shaped line China has claimed since the 1950s, encircling a vast area of the South China Sea, including the disputed Spratly Islands. The ruling is reasonable given that the sea areas in question lie far from China’s land territory. The court also determined that none of the Spratlys are legally “islands” because they cannot sustain a stable community or independent economic life, ruling that none of them can generate an exclusive economic zone. This means that none of the claimant countries can set an EEZ around these maritime features. The ruling also accused China of environmental destruction for its land reclamation and construction of artificial islands at seven features in the Spratlys.
Having suffered a total defeat in the dispute, China is trying to hit back. Taking advantage of the lack of an enforcing mechanism in the PCA decision, President Xi Jinping rejected the ruling and insisted that Beijing’s sovereign rights and maritime rights in the areas in question will not be affected. The official news agency Xinhua termed the ruling “naturally null and void.” China also issued its own 50-page white book on the South China Sea, reiterating that its claims are based on history and legitimate. It filed a protest with the Japanese Embassy in Beijing over the statement by Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who stressed the importance of settling the disputes in the South China Sea under the rule of law and through peaceful means.
Beijing is also attempting to deflect domestic criticism of its leadership over the legal defeat to Japan, by charging that a person close to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — Shunji Yanai, a former ambassador to the United States and then-chief of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea — somehow engineered the ruling.
Tensions in the South China Sea remain high. China started large-scale land reclamation projects in the area after the Philippines filed the case with the court of arbitration in 2013 charging that Beijing was trying to establish effective control over the Spratly Islands through such means as building structures on maritime features. According to the U.S. Defense Department, China reclaimed about 13 sq. km of land by the end of last year, with the man-made area having expanded more than six times within one year. China has not only built port, communications and surveillance facilities but also constructed 3,000-meter-long runways at three locations.
Despite assurances by Xi in a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama last fall that Beijing had “no intention to militarize” the Spratlys, China installed radar and deployed surface-to-air missiles in the area. To counter the Chinese moves, the United States has sent navy vessels to the waters near China-built artificial islands to carry out “freedom of navigation” exercises. Just before the PCA ruling, the Chinese navy carried out a live ammunition exercise.
Given the situation in the South China Sea and Beijing’s response to the ruling, the friction may intensify between China, on the one hand, and the U.S., Japan, which has its own dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, and Southeast Asian countries, on the other. All parties need to take a cool-headed approach and try to solve the problems through diplomatic talks. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China should use the PCA ruling as an opportunity to accelerate negotiations to adopt a code of conduct by upgrading the voluntary Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, signed by ASEAN and China in 2002. A multilateral framework in which the two parties negotiate while others, including the U.S., Japan, Australia and India, take part as observers may be another option.
Japan and the U.S. meanwhile should be careful not to push China too hard to accept the ruling, which would unlikely produce results and may only backfire by hardening Beijing’s position. China on its part needs to refrain from unilateral actions to establish hegemony in the area. Beijing needs to realize that any such actions would only impair its position in the international community and harm economic ties with other countries in the region.
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