Crisis in the South China Sea

Last week, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague ruled that China had violated the sovereign rights of The Philippines by staking its claim to the South China Sea. A decision three years in the making, it a setback for China, however small, and it sets the stage for potential conflict between China and the various other nations that stake their claim on the South China Sea.

The South China Sea, as the name suggests, is located off of the shore of southern China’s Hainan, and is encircled by The Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia. All countries claim various levels of sovereignty over the region. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) allows for a 200 mile line from the coast as the sovereign territory of a nation, though this is not universal and alternate maritime marking mechanisms exist.

China claims the lion’s share of the sea, in an area marked by the “Nine-Dash Line”, which is literally an area marked by nine red dashes stretching hundreds of miles south of its coastline. The basis of the claim is in a map issued by China in 1947, though maritime experts claim that it is loosely defined. Vietnam claims sovereignty over the oceanic region, and the two island chains in it, since the 17th century. The Philippines maintains its right to the South China Sea based on proximity, whereas Malaysia and Brunei stick to the UNCLOS convention for maritime borders.

The region is a cause of concern for the US

The region is also a cause of concern for the US, especially since its pivot to South East Asia under the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which allows for American goods to have better access to markets bordering the Pacific. Despite claiming that it has a policy of non-interference, the US has conducted the so-called freedom of navigation operations, ostensibly to ensure access to key shipping and aerial routes is intact, but Beijing only sees it as an irritation and provocation. The South China Sea is a major shipping route, may have extensive reserves of natural resources, and in a much more immediate sense, impacts the livelihoods of the regions fishing industry.

Various resolution mechanisms have been suggested over time, and China itself has sought bilateral negotiations. Another option is Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), four of the ten members of which are the other claimants of the South China Sea. However, ASEAN is divided over how to settle the matter, and China is not a big fan of the mechanism. In 2013, the Philippines took China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, which has now ruled in favor of the Philippines.

Although this seems like a major setback for China, as the PCA is one of the oldest institutes of international arbitration and conflict management (established in 1899). However, the PCA ruling is not a “decision” and the PCA does not have an enforcement arm or mechanism. The only way for the ruling to be enforced is if both parties agree to the arbitration. In other words, if one country in the dispute rejects the ruling, the other side could take unilateral action, such as diplomatic protestations, imposing sanctions, approaching the UN Security Council, or even waging war; but it cannot enforce anything.

The situation may exacerbate temporarily

China has already summarily rejected the ruling, calling it ill-founded, and have asked Manila to set it aside. Contrary to claims of escalating conflict in the South China Sea and resultant global consequences, this will have little consequence over time. It must be understood that this is not brinkmanship or pressure tactics by Beijing. China has found the key to global success and unparalleled expansion: economy. Over the last three decades it has quietly built its economic might, turning into a powerhouse to match the EU or the US. Surreptitiously, it has grown its influence around the world, building economies, buying debt and assets, applying influence and pressure.

Beijing genuinely believes in diplomacy and arbitration, and will likely engage with Manila directly to resolve the South China Sea conflict. There will be a cost, and China will likely offer billions in development projects and economic growth, but it is a cost China is more than happy to pay, as it links it inseparably and economically with rivals and ensures lasting partnerships and cooperation. The situation may exacerbate temporarily, especially if the US flexes its military muscle in additional “freedom of movement” exercises and/or publicly condemns China’s decision to disregard the ruling. But given China’s recent history, they will likely allow for a cool-off period before reengaging with The Philippines. And it would be in Manila’s best interest to heed the call and steer clear of confrontation or conflict, and move towards economic cooperation and stability.

The author Zeeshan Salahuddin is a journalist and a senior research fellow at the Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS). This article originally appeared in Friday Times, July 22, 2016. Original Link.

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