The writer analyses China’s post-arbitration response on the South China Sea (SCS) which portends that the regional conflict in the SCS will intensify sooner or later
Dr Jagannath Panda
As widely expected, the Philippines secured a favourable South China Sea (SCS) arbitration ruling on July12, 2016 which, unsurprisingly, China has spurned. Many may read the ruling as a legal triumph for the Philippines’ claim on the SCS, but realistically, Beijing may not have entirely lost the battle. To Beijing’s advantage, the ruling has generated a patriotic sentiment among the Chinese people, which will be crucial to Beijing’s future approach to the dispute.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in its ruling has stated unequivocally that neither does China secure any historic rights to the SCS waters nor Beijing’s ‘nine-dash line’ has any legal sanctity. Second, the
status features in the SCS do not belong to Beijing only. Third, China violated the sovereign rights on the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that notably belongs to the Philippines. Fourth, China is aggravating the dispute through the construction of artificial islands and securitising the zones to its advantage. And fifth, China must
conduct itself peacefully and must respect the Philippines’ rights and
freedoms. This ruling will undoubtedly have regional consequences stemming from the SCS dispute.
China has dismissed the award as “null and void” and viewed that the
ruling does not hold any legal implications. Beijing has persistently held that The Hague court is not the appropriate forum to decide the matter, which involves other South-East Asian countries as well, besides the Philippines. In Beijing’s view, The Hague court should not be confused with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) since the former lacks an enforcement mechanism. Also, the Chinese have questioned the procedures and the jurisdictional process of the court in handling such disputes.
To fight off the arbitration ruling, one day after the award, Beijing on July 13 released a White Paper titled ‘China Adheres to the Position of Settling Through Negotiation the Relevant Disputes Between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea’. The White Paper rejects the
ruling and asserts Chinese sovereignty over the SCS. It also builds a context in which China is open to negotiation and discussion with the disputant parties, including the Philippines. The Chinese state media were also quick to depict The Hague court as a puppet of the United States and Japan. To further up the ante, the China Daily reported that more than 70 countries share commonalities with the Chinese perspective on the SCS dispute, which paradoxically figured among them Malaysia and India. China has also gone to work to arrange official meetings and bilateral contacts with a chain of countries around the world. Chinese embassies and Chinese intellectuals have also been engaged in public relations
exercise to take China’s cause forward.
Has the ruling left any impact on Chinese diplomacy over the SCS, especially concerning the ASEAN community? In other words, will China now adopt a more combative or
conciliatory approach in the matter? National security or sovereignty-related land and sea issues are core subject matters in the
Chinese decision-making process. Consequently, a conciliatory approach on China’s part is unlikely. As a result, one might witness an aggressive Chinese posture in terms of a
continuous strategy of land
reclamation and militarisation in the SCS zone. Boosting such an endeavour is the growing nationalism in China in the matter. This nationalism will
probably flourish in the light of the focus on “national rejuvenation” and the quest to achieve the Chinese dream advocated by Xi Jinping’s leadership. This nationalism targets the United States, which is an ally of the Philippines. Sending a strong signal, authorities in Beijing have declared that China may demarcate an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the SCS if Chinese security interests are threatened. An aggressive posture on China’s part is thus on the cards.
On the other hand, China may not immediately opt for an outright intensification of the SCS dispute. Indeed, one may witness a moderate and soft Chinese approach in the near future, which will be more bilateral centric in order to reach out to the disputant countries to resolve the
dispute. The title of the White Paper, for example, speaks of “negotiation” with the Philippines. Both Chinese and Philippines officials are trying to have bilateral contacts to start a discussion on the matter. The new Philippines President is also in favour of talks. At the same time, the bottom line for Beijing in any bilateral or regional negotiation over the SCS would be to reinforce its “nine-dash line” claim.
Overall, China may adhere to a “multi-pronged” strategy over the SCS, involving, besides a “soft” and “hard” power strategy, a “smart” power
strategy which would allow Beijing to sustain its continued influence over ASEAN in future. Even though the ASEAN community is largely divided over the SCS dispute to Beijing’s advantage, still China would like to maintain a path in the immediate future which would allow it to present a “peaceful” posture in South-East Asia. Its “peaceful development” has been vital for China and the ASEAN
community, since the campaign is intended to convince China’s neighbours that its rise is not
detrimental to their strategic interests. Since 2003, when China implemented its “peaceful development” campaign, the leaderships in China and in ASEAN have discussed time and again about China’s rise and its developmental model, and have brought new insights to advance mutual trust and reduce
tensions concerning the SCS dispute. China may pursue a moderate policy through a careful and slow securitising process in the SCS zone also because the core of the strategic engagement between China and ASEAN is trade and economic relations. It may be noted that China is ASEAN’s biggest trading partner. Where resolving the SCS dispute is concerned, Beijing might insist on an “ASEAN way” and “Asia way”, which will be to China’s advantage in two ways. First, it will obviate any temptation on the part of the claimant countries to seek outside powers’ intervention. And second, it will help China to maintain its predominance in the region.
China’s response to the SCS dispute award portends that the regional conflict in the SCS will intensify sooner or later. Beijing is certain to pursue a multipronged strategy that would be to its advantage. China may have lost face after the arbitration award but not its determination to follow up on the SCS to its own advantage.
(The writer is Research Fellow and Heads the East Asia Centre at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi)