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South China Sea: what scenarios after The Hague ruling

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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Sea and finds its shaky historical justification in the control of the archipelago of Paracelsus Islands, militarily withdrawn from Vietnam in 1974.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.

Chinese missiles on a disputed island

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On 14 February, the images captured by a satellite, showed the presence of new military installations on a small island in the Paracels archipelago in the South China Sea, occupied by China and claimed by its neighbors, particularly Taiwan and Vietnam. The island, once known as Woody on nautical charts, was annexed by Beijing in 1956 under the name of Yongxing.

It is probably two HQ-9 batteries, able to arm eight surface-to-air missiles each, with a range which experts estimate at about 200 kilometers, capable of hitting aircraft, cruise missiles and ballistic. Their deployment further exacerbates the tension along the already troubled waters of the South China Sea, the theater for several years of a territorial dispute on a large scale, with major political, strategic and economic implications, in which all the powers of the region are involved, including Japan, and the United States, determined to defend its freedom of military and commercial shipping in the area and to limit the expansionist ambitions of Beijing.

The revelation, released yesterday by the Taiwanese authorities, has angered the Chinese who, at first, have thundered against the lies of the pro-Western propaganda, and subsequently reaffirmed their right to install weapons of “self-defense” on islands inhabited by Chinese civil and military personnel, “according to international law”.

The major concern for the Americans and their allies in the area, is that Beijing brings forward a unilateral project of militarization in the region, strengthening, officially for defensive purposes, a growing number of islands and neo-artificial islands, made ex- novo by Chinese engineers through massive drainage of the sandy ocean floor, there where once there were only semi-submerged sections of the reef.

The Yongxing island in fact already have an airstrip and, in November 2015, the satellites captured the image of a Chinese military jet landed on the outpost. The missiles deployment, according to experts interviewed by the BBC, may be a warning addressed to Vietnam, which continues to advance their claims on the archipelago, and to United States, after that, in January, an American missile destroyer sailed close to the island’s shores.

For now, Beijing has avoided to deploy military installations on the disputed islands of the Spratly archipelago, far away from the Chinese territorial waters and nestled between Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, who are claiming themselves its possess. If the escalation would go so far south, Chinese action would be perceived not as a simple provocation but as an explicit act of hostility, with consequences difficult to predict.

The dispute on the South China Sea was also addressed during the summit just concluded in California, between the United States and the ASEAN countries, the organization of the Southeast Asia states. Just yesterday, President Obama, concluding  the meeting, reiterated the US call to stop any further “claim, new construction and militarization”, indirectly referring to Chinese activities in the area. Obama also said the US will continue ” will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows” adding that the United States will provide their support to allies in the region so that they can do the same. A support that has been explicitly called for by the Vietnamese Prime Minister during the summit. Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung has appealed directly to Obama to ask that the US has ” has a stronger voice and more practical and more efficient” to achieve the interruption of all initiatives aimed at changing the status quo, clearly referring to China and its constructive activities on the Spratly archipelago.

The purpose of the summit was to find new common solutions to counter Beijing’s expansionism in the South China Sea and preserve the right to free navigation, a primary geopolitical interest for the United States in that part of the world. China’s choice to deploy a missile battery on the island of Yongxing in conjunction with the US-ASEAN summit is obviously not random and tends to reiterate Beijing’s intention to dispose as they please of the territories under its control.

For Americans and its allies a military escalation, although on a minor scale, has the flavor of provocation. A US official said to the microphones of CNN that the deployment of the missiles, which occurred during the summit, was a ” further demonstration of China’s attempt to unilaterally change the status quo” in the South China Sea. On the same line  is Japan, that by the mouth of Chief Cabinet Secretary Suga Yoshihide  has branded as unacceptable the initiative of Beijing.

The dispute looks set to exacerbate, especially if China decides to proceed with the creation of military infrastructure on the islands under its control, going further south. Another variable in play concerns the energy and mineral resources that could hide under coral beds. Geological surveys and drilling have not started yet, at least officially, but the discovery of oil or natural gas could further jeopardize the relations between the powers bordering on that slice of ocean.


Luca Marchesini

Luca Marchesini
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