Five years ago last Thursday, an international tribunal dismissed China’s claims to sovereignty over vast expanses of the South China Sea.
Sadly, the decision has had little impact on Chinese behavior. Beijing did not renounce or trim its claims to comport with the ruling and its island-building campaign continued unabated.
The aftermath of the South China Sea case provides unmistakable insight into China’s view of how the world should work. Beijing believes that there should be no checks on the pursuit of its national interests and that in Asia, at least, its preferences should take precedence over all other considerations.
In 2013, The Philippines filed suit against China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) — to which both countries are a signatory — at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague. The case followed a two-month standoff between Philippine and Chinese vessels over Scarborough Shoal, a reef claimed by both countries, after which China seized the reef.
Manila’s lawyers charged that China’s claims to vast parts of the South China Sea were unfounded and illegal. China countered that its claim was based on historical use, embodied in a map with a nine-dash line that formally identified Chinese jurisdiction.
China never made those claims in court, however. Beijing refused to participate in the process and dismissed its legality, insisting the issue was a matter of national sovereignty as well as a bilateral dispute between it and Manila, and therefore was not subject to the tribunal’s jurisdiction.
In an additional show of contempt, during the three-year arbitration process, China turned seven other reefs into artificial islands, converting them into military outposts with airstrips, hangars, bunkers and all the equipment needed to project its power. All the while, it harassed ships and fishing boats from countries that claim territory in the South China Sea — Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam as well.
The tribunal ruled that there was no legal basis to China’s claim. It found no evidence of exclusive historical control and, more significantly, it ruled that UNCLOS was the only basis to assert legal rights and Chinese claims did not comport with the document.
China violated “the Philippines’ sovereign rights by operating in the latter’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.” In addition, it concluded that China’s land reclamation activities had caused “severe harm to the coral reef environment.” It was a resounding win for the Philippines.
Yet, China ignored and dismissed the ruling. At the time, the nation’s foreign ministry declared “the award is null and void and has no binding force. China neither accepts nor recognizes it.”
That contempt was steeled by the readiness of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to power just two weeks before the decision was announced, to downplay its significance and instead pursue billions of dollars in Chinese investments.
Five years on, China is as derogatory and dismissive of the ruling as ever. Last week, a foreign ministry spokesperson called the ruling “a political farce,” adding that it was “illegal, null and void and a waste paper.” If that weren’t enough, he concluded that “The sovereignty and rights of China on the South China Sea will not be affected by the ruling and China will not accept any assertion or act based on this ruling.”
China also insists that whatever its claims, it has not and will not imperil the $5 trillion in global maritime trade that passes through the South China Sea, in its mind neutralizing the charge by other governments that Chinese policy and behavior are a threat to regional stability and prosperity.
Those comments were a response to statements by other governments affirming the validity of the tribunal ruling. Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi again called on China to recognize the ruling, noting that Beijing’s rejection “is against the principle of peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law, in particular UNCLOS, and undermines the rule of law.”
He echoed U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who warned that “Nowhere is the rules-based maritime order under greater threat than in the South China Sea,” adding that China “continues to coerce and intimidate Southeast Asian coastal states, threatening freedom of navigation in this critical global throughway.” He also reminded Beijing that any attack on Philippine vessels or aircraft “would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments.”
Perhaps most frustrating for Beijing, the Philippines defended the ruling as well. Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. last month called the decision “final” and said that it “continues to be a milestone in the corpus of international law.” This follows Duterte’s comments to the U.N. General Assembly last year when he said that “We firmly reject attempts to undermine it,” and welcomed the growing number of states that support the award.
Duterte’s shift may reflect a political calculation. Last month, former President Benigno Aquino, Duterte’s predecessor who launched the case, passed away. Duterte hopes to stay in power in national elections scheduled to be held next year and support for the legal victory makes sense since much of the promised Chinese aid has not been delivered.
Manila’s shift is important. Disregarding the ruling makes it complicit in Beijing’s attempts to erode international law. Beijing is right to try to work out a diplomatic solution to those territorial disputes, but negotiations should use international law as their foundation and reinforce objective, rule-based outcomes. Beijing instead prefers quiet bilateral talks because it can bring the greatest pressure to bear on behalf of its interests.
Over a decade ago, then-Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi provided a window on Chinese thinking when he responded to criticism from Singapore at a regional meeting by noting, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact,” intimating that those small countries should know their place.
This is not how the world should work. The South China Sea ruling is a brick in the wall supporting that rules-based order. It must be supported.
The Japan Times Editorial Board
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.