By Sana Hashmi*
On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague announced the much-awaited verdict in the case on South China Sea. As anticipated, the decision was in the favour of the Philippines and the PCA dismissed the Chinese sovereignty claims in a 501-page long ruling. The PCA observed that, “there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’”. The PCA made it clear that, “it has jurisdiction to consider the Parties’ dispute concerning historic rights and the source of maritime entitlements in the South China Sea”; whereas, Chinese government refused to abide by the ruling and called the ruling ‘null and void’.
There has been a sense of growing maritime insecurity in the Asia-Pacific region since 2012. Seemingly, the reasons for the Philippines’ resort to the PCA were two-fold: first, the 2012 standoff at the Scarborough Shoal between China and the Philippines acted as the primary trigger for the Philippines to seek the intervention of the international tribunal. Second, 2012 was the year when the ASEAN could not issue the joint communiqué for the first time in its history of 45 years. Cambodia was the chair of 2012 ASEAN Summit and it did not allow Vietnam and the Philippines to bring the issue of the South China Sea to the table. That was one of the first instances where differences within ASEAN were brought to the forefront.
Since 2013, Chinese government has maintained that it will not participate in the proceedings. On July 5, 2016, Dai Bingguo, China’s former State Councilor and representative to India-China Talks on Boundary Issues, remarked that “the ruling would be nothing more than a piece of trash paper”. After the announcement of the verdict, President Xi Jinping also proclaimed, “the waters had been Chinese territory since ancient times and this ruling could not invalidate such history”. Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi stated that, “this farce is now over… China opposes and will never accept any claim or action based on those awards”. Furthermore, China has accused countries such as the US and Japan of instigating tension in the region in the aftermath of the PCA verdict.
While the verdict is a major setback for China’s international standing, it is also a victory for China insofar as it has been successful in dividing the ASEAN. Countries such as Laos and Cambodia have been openly supporting China’s stance of opting for the bilateral negotiations for the dispute resolution. In April 2016, Brunei, Cambodia, and Laos reached on a consensus that the matter of the South China Sea is of bilateral nature and should not affect ASEAN’s relations with China. Also, on July 24, 2016, the issue of the verdict could not be figured in the joint statement of the ASEAN Foreign Minister Meeting due to Cambodia’s resistance to avoid any mention of the PCA ruling in the meeting.
At the substantive level, the ruling did not make any difference. However, it has put enough diplomatic pressure on China to react. Release of the white paper against the verdict on the South China Sea dispute one day after the ruling is a case in point. The verdict has bolstered the claims of the Philippines. It seems that China will attempt to engage the Philippines as well as Vietnam constructively. It has already offered the Philippines to initiate bilateral negotiations. However, as of now, the Philippines have turned down the offer by stating that it will abide by the ruling. Going for bilateral negotiations will weaken Philippines’ bargaining position.
Second option for the Southeast Asian nation is to rely on the ASEAN to mediate the dispute. However, till now, it has been ineffective in mediating in the dispute as well as unable to address the concern about China’s rise and its assertive behaviour. With rising tension, ASEAN’s credibility has been put to test.
Third, the Philippines has become more assertive and has sought the support of the United States and Japan. Nevertheless, intervention of the United States will only hurt the Philippines’ case. This will not only undermine the regional stability, it will also make China more assertive and affect China-Philippines bilateral relations.
The previous government of Benigno Aquino III filed the case in the tribunal, and even if the Philippines has won the case, the current government of Rodrigo Duterte is (comparatively) more responsive to the Chinese. During his presidential campaigns, he mentioned that he would prefer to hold bilateral negotiations with China. It seems, sooner or later, the Philippines government might accept China’s request for dealing with the matter at the bilateral level.
Clearly, direct confrontation, which is less likely to occur, will lead to instability in maritime Southeast Asia. It seems the dispute would not be resolved anytime soon and might lead to escalation of tension in the region. Nevertheless, it is certain that no direct confrontation will take place.
Given that geopolitical stakes are high, so as to ensure peace and stability, compromises should be made by both sides. China has resolved territorial disputes with its 12 out of 14 neighbours peacefully. While China may consider becoming sensitive to the demands of other claimants, as it has done in the past; the Philippines along with Vietnam might avoid involvement of extra regional countries such as the United States and Japan in the dispute. This will discourage China to continue with its land reclamation activities. One of the reasons why China is undertaking such activities is that it feels threatened by the presence of the United States.
The path to the dispute resolution will not be easy as the dispute involves six parties and their overlapping claims. The minimum that could be done in such a situation is to respect the status quo. China needs to take an extra step given that its smaller neighbours are apprehensive of China’s assertive postures in the region. It needs to practice restrain if it wants its so-called theory of peaceful development to not lose credibility. Such behaviour on the part of China will help establishing itself as a responsible power.
*Sana Hashmi is a PhD candidate at Chinese Division of the Centre for East Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She can be reached at: [email protected]