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South China Sea: what scenarios after The Hague ruling

Asia @en/BreakingNews @en di

The forecasts have been met: The Permanent Court of Arbitration based at The Hague, called by the Philippines in defense of their fishing areas, has expressed yesterday in a ruling that meets Manila requests and disregards the Beijing claims on the islands of the South China Sea. The Court ruled that the Chinese expansion violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international agreement that regulates the right of the states on the oceans, signed by 166 nations, including China.

How was equally predictable, given the statements of Chinese leaders before the verdict, the Asian giant does not intend to respect the ruling of the Court, to which it never wanted to recognize any jurisdiction over the maritime dispute involving the major countries of Southeast Asia, as well in Japan, the US and, to a lesser extent, Australia.

The so-called “Nine-dash line” claimed by Beijing covers 90% of the South China Sea and finds its shaky historical justification in the control of the archipelago of Paracelsus Islands, militarily withdrawn from Vietnam in 1974. China, over the past three years, has strengthened unilaterally its position by building artificial island along the coral reefs, where then installed civilian and military outposts and asphalt airstrips for the landing of its aircrafts.

In fact, the judgment further stirs the waters in a geopolitical theater already subject to frequent storms. China is convinced that no act of the court will ever questioning its national interests in the area. Moreover, the Hague International Court has no binding instrument to force Beijing to respect its judgment. The Chinese government, however, is concerned that the judgment favorable to the Philippines may trigger a domino of appeals from other countries whose coasts are on the disputed stretch of sea, among the most strategic globally by fishing and commercial point of view. The US, meanwhile, could use the ruling to reaffirm the  freedom of navigation principle, the banner that Washington carries out to safeguard their own economic and military interests in the area.

Beijing’s response is likely to be more important than the ruling itself and could point the way for future relations between the hegemonic power of the area and the bloc of nations that attempts to contain its expansion. The question is: what will China do? It will try to direct the development of events in his favor, or try other unilateral actions, even at the cost of exacerbating tensions?

Beijing could decide to be accommodating and, without publicly accept the principles of the judgment, could mitigate its positions, stopping the construction of artificial islands and recognizing the right of fishing in the disputed waters for its neighbors. In the long run, a conciliatory attitude could benefit the growth of the country, ensuring peace and contributing to the emergence of an international legal system more sensitive to its interests.

The events may, however, take the opposite direction. China may reject the ruling and, with it, reject UNCLOS principles, accelerate the construction of artificial islands and strengthen the military outposts, showing muscles to the Philippines and other ASEAN countries.

Beijing could also opt for a third way: do nothing and ignore the ruling. But to cement his leadership China needs to produce rules, not to ignore them, offering an image of reliability in terms of international law. A proactive approach is the only one that would convince other Asian countries to recognize to China a leading role in the medium and long term.

All actors involved should, therefore, openly or tacitly accept the principles underlying the judgment without pushing for a rapid implementation. China would take time to gradually adapt its initiatives to the new standards, in the name of political stability and for the affirmation of an international law which build its supremacy within.

At the moment, it is not easy to imagine such reasonableness, because the Asian giant also feeds itself with nationalism and revanchism against the western and pro-Western powers, which in the past have used the gauntlet to impose their interests to China. An official statement released just before the verdict came by the Minister of Defense, and wasn’t too conciliatory: “Chinese armed forces will firmly safeguard national sovereignty, security and maritime interests and rights, firmly uphold regional peace and stability, and deal with all kinds of threats and challenges.”

Today Beijing feels as strong as ever and could decide to challenge the common rules to force opponents to accept its own. In this case even peace itself would be at risk, because an increase in the construction of civil and military infrastructure in the South China Sea would strengthen deterrence but would multiply the chances of accidents with the US and its allies. The escalation, at that point, may be rapid and uncontrollable.

Dispute between the US and China for control of the South China Sea goes on

Asia @en di

During the Asia-Pacific Cooperation Summit in Manila, which ended last week, President Barack Obama reiterated the US position, calling on China to stop the construction of artificial islands and new infrastructure in the area of ​​sea dispute. The answer wasn’t long in coming. At the summit of the ASEAN countries, held in Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, through the Deputy Chinese Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin, accused Washington of wanting an escalation and defended the construction activities at sea, launched in 2013 and still in progress today.

First Obama, at the opening of the APEC summit in Manila, last Wednesday, pushed the issue of the South China Sea on the political agenda of the 21 leaders. After meeting with the President of the Philippines, Benigno S. Aquino III, Obama spoke to the press urging Beijing to cease all military activity in that part of the sea and to accept international arbitration to reconcile differences with its neighbors in South-East Asia.

“We agree on the need for bold steps to lower tensions – Mr. Obama said – including pledging to halt further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas in the South China Sea,”

Without taking a position on the front of the territorial claims made by the involved countries, the United States consider free navigation on the waters of the contended area as a vital point. For this reason, they confirmed their commitment to the side of the South Asian governments who oppose Chinese expansionism, and ensured the Allies a contribution of $ 250 million for military spending.

Beijing’s response came on November 22, during the ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur. Deputy Chinese Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin asserted the legitimacy and legality of Chinese government initiatives, reiterating that China has no intention to terminate the building of new facilities off its southern coast. Zhenmin then replied to the American accusations, denying that Beijing is proceeding to a progressive militarization of the area. From Chinese prospective, Washington should instead halt its provocations after that, last month, an American navy ship crossed a maritime area that Beijing regards as part of its territorial waters.

“Building and maintaining necessary military facilities, this is what is required for China’s national defence and for the protection of those islands and reefs,” Deputy Foreign Minister said, adding that Beijing intends to “expand and upgrade” civil infrastructure ” to better serve commercial ships, fishermen, to help distressed vessels and provide more public services.”

The two main contenders positions are, therefore, very far and nothing portends, at this time, a change of course by the Chinese battleship.

Luca Marchesini
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