LONDON – The waters around the South China Sea are roiling and its far from evident how they can be calmed. The recent four-day visit to China by U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice was aimed at recalibrating regional policy.
Dealing a major blow to Beijing’s insistence that it has special rights to the South China Sea and in a victory for the Philippines, an international tribunal of judges decided that China’s claims to the critical waterway are without legal merit. The ruling handed down by The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration in response to the complaint brought by the Philippines after the seizure of Scarborough Shoal by China in 2012 has set the stage for more tension in one of the world’s flash points.
It will radically alter not only China’s interaction with its Asian neighbors but with other major regional and global players such as the United States, Japan, Australia and India. China claims almost all of the South China Sea, but its claims are fiercely contested by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Beijing reacted quickly to the tribunal’s decision with China’s defense ministry suggesting that its troops would “unswervingly safeguard state sovereignty, security, maritime rights and interests.” Beijing insists that it has sovereignty over the South China Sea. China was “the first to have discovered, named and explored and exploited” the islands of the South China Sea and their waters, and has “continuously, peacefully and effectively exercised sovereignty and jurisdiction over them,” Beijing said in a white paper on settling disputes with the Philippines.
That Beijing was preparing for an adversarial ruling was evident even before the ruling was announced, when a Chinese civilian aircraft successfully carried out calibration tests on two new airports in the disputed Spratly Islands. And immediately after the ruling, China’s Defence Ministry announced that a new guided missile destroyer was formally commissioned at a naval base in the southern island province of Hainan, which has responsibility for the South China Sea.
Since the ruling, China’s stance has only hardened. Beijing has asked Manila to “disregard” the tribunal’s ruling if bilateral negotiations are to proceed, a proposal rejected by the Philippines. In the middle of a visit to Beijing by the top officer in the U.S. Navy, Adm. John Richardson, the Chinese government announced it would begin conducting regular military air patrols over the South China Sea, including near disputed man-made islands that Beijing claims as its own.
The U.S. response has been measured so far, with Washington asking Beijing to follow the ruling and suggesting that the ruling won’t change much about American policy and that U.S. freedom of navigation operations will continue.
It is also interesting to underline that while China is unhappy with the ruling, many forget that Taiwan shares many of the same maritime claims. And the Taiwanese government is also unhappy with the ruling. Hours after the ruling, the Taiwanese government sent a warship into the controversial waterway, “to display Taiwan people’s resolve in defending the national interest,” President Tsai Ing-wen said in a speech. The decision by the tribunal “gravely harmed” Taiwan’s rights in the South China Sea, she said.
Within hours of the court’s ruling, Chinese social media erupted with anger and rage in a sign of growing grass-roots nationalism. But to the ruling Communist Party, such sentiment is a double-edged sword: official censors moved quickly to curtail online discussion that seemed to overstep the bounds of acceptable nationalist discourse. There are many in China, especially in the People’s Liberation Army, who would like Beijing to adopt a harder line by, say, renouncing the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS) altogether and declaring an air defense identification zone over most of the South China Sea. Declaring an ADIZ, which the United States would certainly ignore, would dramatically increase the likelihood of military incidents, with wholly unforeseeable consequences. With its 7th Fleet long deployed in Asia and having to play an important role in reassuring its allies about freedom of navigation in the region, Washington will be confronted by some very difficult decisions about how far it wants to go in confronting a potentially aggrieved and even more aggressive China. After declaring South China Sea as one its “core national interest,” the Chinese Communist Party will also find it very difficult to go to the negotiating table without a loss of face.
Within hours of the tribunal’s ruling, India’s external affairs ministry issued a statement that, without naming China, called on all stakeholders to resolve disputes peacefully and to show respect for UNCLOS. This moment presents an important opportunity for India to underscore its credentials as a responsible global power. China, which was talking about global norms to block India’s Nuclear Suppliers Group bid, now seems prepared to flout international law with impunity. But India managed to resolve its maritime dispute with Bangladesh using the arbitration route. U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia Abraham Denmark alluded to this when he suggested that China follow India’s example of resolving its maritime boundary dispute with Bangladesh by implementing the award by a similar tribunal appointed by the PCA.
India is also now ready to significantly enhance its presence in China’s periphery as underlined by the Modi government’s readiness to sell the supersonic BrahMos missile to Vietnam after dilly-dallying on Hanoi’s request to buy it since 2011. It would be unwise for New Delhi not to use this strategic opportunity to shore up its profile in the larger Indo-Pacific region as it comes to terms with China’s assertiveness. “Acting East” is no longer just an option but an imperative for Indian foreign policy.
Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College.