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Sea and finds its shaky historical justification in the control of the archipelago of Paracelsus Islands, militarily withdrawn from Vietnam in 1974.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

Luca Marchesini
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