Across the globe, there are plenty of disputes between countries over land and maritime territorial claims. The world now stands at a crossroads in terms of whether it can establish an international order under which such conflicts are resolved not by force, but through the rule of law.
The success or failure of the effort will hinge on how the international community deals with China’s assertion of sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea and its expansion of military facilities built on artificial islands in the area. Other nations adjacent to the South China Sea, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, have reacted angrily to China’s assertive moves. The Group of Seven major industrialized countries have also issued statements criticizing China.
Military facilities have been built on Fiery Cross Reef, part of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. (U.S. Navy photo distributed by Reuters)
The South China Sea is a vital route for global trade, with nearly half of the world’s traded oil and liquefied natural gas passing through it. It would have a tremendous effect on the world economy if it were effectively turned into a Chinese inland sea.
The core question is whether China’s claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea have a sound basis in international law. The Philippines has taken its territorial dispute with China to a United Nations arbitration tribunal under the auspices of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. The court is expected to give a verdict as early as this month.
Most analysts foresee that the ruling is likely to be unfavorable for China. The Chinese leadership has already stressed that it would disregard any decision by the tribunal.
“The arbitration award is not binding on China,” Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department of China’s Central Military Commission, said this month in a speech he gave at an annual security forum in Singapore, known as the Shangri-La Dialogue. He also said that “China will not bear the consequences, nor will it allow any infringement upon its sovereignty and security interests.”
It stands to reason that Japan’s Defense Minister Gen Nakatani and U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who both participated in the Singapore forum, took the stance that China should abide by the upcoming tribunal ruling.
ASEAN IS KEY China’s territorial assertions have essentially no basis in international law. Beijing has taken the position, as echoed by Sun Jianguo, that the South China Sea has belonged to China since ancient times, without any objections raised by neighbors for a long period of time. But this assertion is unacceptable.
Should every country begin to claim a land or maritime area as its territory by asserting that it was ruled by the country in old times, the world would be immediately thrown into disarray. Territorial disputes should be settled firmly based on contemporary international law.
That said, it seems unlikely that the Chinese government will follow the upcoming arbitration ruling. So, countries opposing China’s territorial claims have no alternative but to make a concerted effort to maintain pressure on the Chinese government to accept the verdict, no matter how many years it may take. China must be forced to pay politically for ignoring international law, otherwise its leadership will likely engage in more hardline behavior.
Holding the key to future developments is how member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which share a geographical proximity to the South China Sea, will respond to China’s assertiveness. But if China manages to drive a wedge between ASEAN members, it will be difficult to apply sufficient pressure on Beijing. What is at stake are not only maritime territorial rights, but also whether the Asia-Pacific region can establish an international order based on the rule of law.