China’s refusal to accept the verdict on South China Sea is in tune with the behaviour of a revisionist power
Some year ago when I was traveling through some Tibetan areas of Sichuan and Yunnan during my photo expeditions in occupied Tibet, I was amused by an unending bombardment of TV promos and propaganda ads which were part of a high profile official centenary celebration of Chenghiz Khan as a ‘great son of China’. Despite my serious disadvantage as a science graduate who was never taught subjects like history and economics, I was fully aware of how Mongol emperor Chenghiz Khan and his descendents like Kublai Khan occupied the erstwhile China and how they treated poor Hans (the ‘real’ Chinese). It was only after the defeated Han kings could persuade neighbouring Tibet’s Dalai Lama to plead their case with his ardent disciple Kublai Khan that the Mongol army stopped the ongoing festival of massacring the Hans by thousands each day. Soon I realised that the main purpose of this celebration and the propaganda campaign was to reinforce China’s claims over its illegal occupation of South Mongolia.
Thanks to my long love affair with Chinese occupied Tibet, I’ve been frequently coming across some of the most innovative Chinese ways of rewriting some most inconvenient chapters of Chinese history into some most suitable editions of history.
The Verdict and Aftermath
The unprecedented raucous created by the Beijing government over a clear and unambiguous judgment of The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague last week was the latest one in such a series. It was a unanimous
judgment of the five-member tribunal which outright rejected China’s claims over nearly 90 percent surface and seabed of South China Sea. These Chinese claims directly challenged the national sovereignty, environment and maritime as well as other economic rights of at least six countries namely Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The judgment of the tribunal came in response to a case filed by Philippines in 2013 after China seized a reef known as ‘Scarborough Shoal’ within its national waters. On the contrary, China referred to its own 'historic' concept which it terms as the ‘nine-dash line’ across the South China Sea. This line, a piece of Chinese imagination drawn in the Chinese official maps, encircles nearly 90 per cent of entire South China Sea and transgresses into the national boundaries and international waters of above mentioned six countries. In its case Philippines had claimed that Chinese action was in violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that both countries had ratified.
In its findings the tribunal has rejected China’s argument that it enjoys historic rights over most of the South China Sea. The judgment also specifically mentions that China had violated international law by causing ‘irreparable harm’ to the marine
environment, endangered Philippine ships and interfered with Philippine’s fishing and oil exploration rights.
This judgment of the tribunal also says that any historic rights to the sea that China had previously enjoyed were ‘extinguished’ by the treaty which lays out rules for drawing zones of control over the world’s oceans based on
distances to coastlines. The tribunal also said that while China had used islands in the sea in the past, it had never exercised exclusive authority over the waters. It clearly says that China was engaged in unlawful
behaviour in Philippine waters.
It was first time since Peoples’ Republic of China joined the civilised world as an internationally recognised entity that the Beijing Government was summoned before the international justice system. As expected, Beijing refused to participate in the proceedings. Knowing well that its claims were untenable in the international law, Chinese leaders had already announced that China would not accept the judgment if it was not
favourable to its interests and claims.
Interestingly the verdict of the tribunal at The Hague is legally binding on China but there is no international
operative mechanism to implement such decisions. It is therefore not surprising that in its very first reaction China declared that it did not recognise the jurisdiction of the tribunal and hence will not abide by its verdict.
Soon after the government reaction the state-run ‘Global Times’ newspaper of China came out with a more blistering attack on the US Government which had strongly supported the tribunal’s verdict. In its editorial that was titled “Blistering US a paper tiger in the S China Sea” freely used the traditional communist style of shouting abusive and insulting terminology against USA and Japan terming them as ‘eunichs’ of Philippines.
Taking an aggressive stance, the Global Times went to the extent of
issuing a direct military threat as it wrote, “The People’s Liberation Army should enhance its military deployment in the waters of the Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands) and be fully prepared to counterattack if the US makes further provocations.”
If all this anger and rejection of the international verdict was not enough, China flew two civilian aircrafts to its two newly developed airfields in islands of the disputed area to assert its claims over the wide expanse of South China Sea. With these two ‘civilian flights’ starting ‘civil operation’ the number of such artificial airstrips in the Sea has gone up to three.
In another interesting development ‘China Daily’ tried to claim that more than 70 countries which also include India, supported China on this issue. Releasing a world map on its website it made a cleverly worded statement which says that as against few countries led by USA and its allies who favoured implementation of the arbitration, more than 70 countries (India included) were in favour of solving the issue through ‘negotiations’.
Seeing the implications of this clever move from China, Indian spokesman Vikas Swarup made it clear that India recognised that the tribunal had been set up within the jurisdiction of the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that must be given the “utmost respect”. “For us, this is not an issue of being in favour or against any particular country. It is about the use of the global commons,” he added. On the same day an Indo-Japan joint statement was also issued after the annual defence ministerial meeting which “urged all parties to show utmost respect” to the ruling of a tribunal in The Hague on South China Sea dispute.
The international verdict and initial reactions may have made the battle lines over South China Sea much clearer. This dividing line very clearly has placed PRC on one side and everyone who either disagrees with it or does not join Beijing to further is expansionist goals and the dream of ‘Middle Kingdom’ on the other. Seeing the Chinese attitude and its early reactions, it is now clearer than ever before that it would be naive to expect the modern power dispensation in Beijing to respect the international laws and international opinion.
The situation calls for more vigil and agility on part of all those countries who share borders and disputes with China to be ready for any kind of response from Beijing. Especially for a country like India which shares a 4000 km long border and a host of potential flash points, expecting an accommodating or liberal attitude will be a wishful
thinking. But looking at China one wonders how it will handle the
challenges it has started inviting from every front just because of its own megalomaniac perspective of history?
(Author is a senior journalist and Chairman, Centre for Himalayan Asia Studies and Engagement)