Tensions have flared in the Asia-Pacific region just weeks before a key international court ruling on claims in the South China Sea, with nations growing increasingly embroiled in a war of words.
Beijing claims much of the South China Sea, putting it at odds with four other nations, along with Taiwan. Manila wants the court to declare that Beijing’s claims must comply with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which both the Philippines and China are parties. Beijing has refused to participate in the case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague and said it would not accept the decision, which could come this month or in June.
Washington has shown a determination to maintain what it calls freedom of navigation throughout the trade route, and US President Barack Obama has said his nation would hold China to account if Beijing chose to go against international rules and norms, without elaborating.
Beijing claims that more than a dozen nations in Asia, Europe and Africa have lent at least partial support to China’s argument that territorial disputes should be addressed solely by the nations directly involved, without interference from non-claimants. Topping the list of allies are Russia, India, Poland, Sudan, Pakistan, Belarus as well as rival claimant Brunei.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry has taken a swipe at the process, with Ouyang Yujing, head of the department of boundary and ocean affairs, saying last week that the arbitration was nothing more than “a political farce in the guise of law”. Furthermore, the tribunal had put its impartiality at stake by agreeing to accept the case, despite Beijing’s opposition, Ouyang said.
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State-controlled media have called the case a US-led ruse to fuel anti-Chinese sentiment and contain China. “The South China Sea issues are just an excuse for the US to meddle in regional affairs and stir up tensions in a bid to isolate China,” People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, said in a commentary on Friday.
Although it is uncertain how Beijing will respond to the ruling, one in Manila’s favour would deal a blow to China’s strategy for territorial claims in the region and set a precedent for rival claimants, analysts said.
Dr Bonnie Glaser, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in the United States, said China’s effort to win diplomatic support was unlikely to succeed, even if Beijing used economic “carrots and sticks”. “The lesson is that China’s interests aren’t more important than other countries’ interests. Might doesn’t make right. Friends aren’t won through intimidation,” Glaser said.
Although the 10-strong Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has steered clear of taking up regional sovereignty disputes, the issue indeed affects them directly.
Along with the Philippines, bloc members Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims with China. In a statement last month, Beijing said it had reached an agreement with Cambodia, Brunei and Laos that the dispute should be resolved through negotiations between parties directly concerned, and that it should not affect the ties between China and Asean. But Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan was quoted by the Phnom Penh Post as saying that no new deal had been reached.
Professor Pang Zhongying, of Renmin University of China, cautioned against overestimating the backing. “Their influence is rather limited and they clearly traded their acquiescence for economic benefits,” Pang said.
Some Asean diplomats have lashed out at China for attempting to split the grouping, a charge China denies. Dr Daniel Wei Boon Chua, of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, warned of the consequence of a divided bloc. “Once Asean loses the plot in the South China Sea, we can expect … claimants to go at each other,” he said.
Even state media has cautioned against over-optimism, noting that most of Beijing’s allies “do not necessarily support China’s sovereignty and territorial claims in the South China Sea completely”.
Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University, said China’s justification for its sovereignty, rooted in historical claims, were not popular with its neighbours, making it unlikely Beijing would win greater international support.
There’s no denying that we basically are on our own in this fight in the South China Sea
Shi Yinhong, foreign affairs expert, Renmin University
“There’s no denying that we basically are on our own in this fight in the South China Sea,” he said.
“Ties with our neighbours are important, but we have realised that without military might, we will not be able to win this battle in the South China Sea.
“That’s why there are growing signs that the current leadership has apparently given superior priority to strengthening hard power over the past three years and is unlikely to back down considering mounting international pressure,” Shi said.
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Some analysts argue the inflammatory rhetoric coming out of Beijing was aimed largely at a domestic audience.
They note many governments, including China’s, have often sought to trump up nationalist fervour to divert the public’s attention away from larger political and economic concerns.
Other observers say the disputes offer a chance for China to re-examine its quest for greater influence largely through economic clout and chequebook diplomacy. Dr Jay Batongbacal, of University of the Philippines, said: “China is losing the battle in the court of international public opinion, but this is a situation largely of its own making.”
The arbitration was especially important to small states like Singapore which felt more secure when rules and norms were observed by major powers, said Chua, of Nanyang Technological University.
But “it would be foolish to think that the [court] ruling alone will give any sort of settlement to the disputes. There is a possibility that the ruling will not slow down China’s island-building projects at all,” he said.
Such attempts, of course, only further harm China’s quest for so-called soft power
Jerome Cohen, Chinese law expert at New York University, on Beijing’s attacks on the tribunal
Both Glaser and Professor Jerome Cohen, a leading expert on Chinese law at New York University school of law, said China’s rejection of a rule-based system made it look like a bully to the rest of the world. Referring to Beijing’s attacks on the tribunal, Cohen said: “Such attempts, of course, only further harm China’s quest for so-called soft power.”
During a trip to Asia last year, US Defence Secretary Ash Carter lambasted Beijing for undermining security in Asia Pacific. He said the US was “deeply concerned” about the scale of China’s land reclamation, which has far exceeded all other claimants combined, and the prospect of further militarisation of the islands, saying it would boost “the risk of miscalculation or conflict”.
According to the Pentagon, while other nations have also built outposts in the South China Sea, mostly before 2002, China has reclaimed more than 1,200 hectares of land in just two years.
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Beijing argues the man-made islands and its military facilities offer civilian benefits.
Obama also singled out China recently, blaming Beijing for playing a zero-sum game with its neighbours.
“So with respect to the South China Sea, rather than operate under international norms and rules, their attitude is, ‘We’re the biggest kids around here. And we’re gonna push aside the Philippines or the Vietnamese.’ … It’s not a zero-sum game,” Obama said in a TV interview late last month.
Echoing the US and the European Union, Hugo Swire, British minister of state responsible for East Asia, warned last month that China should respect the arbitration ruling, which must be binding on all parties.
China’s assertiveness had provided its neighbours with a clear and palpable threat, which may have played into Washington’s hands, according to Batongbacal. “Washington could not have done anything more effective to make Asean states come closer and welcome US involvement in the region than what China has done,” Batongbacal said.
He said the court ruling would also lend legal support to the US’ positioning in the region.
Reflecting America’s rebalancing towards Asia, Obama hosted Asean leaders in the US for the first time in February.
He will follow that up this month with a visit to Vietnam and Japan for a Group of Seven summit, where regional territorial disputes are expected to be high on the agenda.
Chinese military experts have said Beijing might likely retaliate to the ruling by accelerating efforts to fortify the Scarborough Shoal, known as Huangyan Island in Chinese, which lies about 230km off the Philippine coast. Beijing could also possibly declare an air defence identification zone in the South China Sea, as it did in the East China Sea during an escalation of the row with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, or the Senkakus, in November 2013.
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But Shi said the friction between China and the US and regional allies was likely to become the new normal in the Asia-Pacific region.
“Tensions may further escalate because, for Chinese leaders, their ultimate goal is to make its military strong enough to deny the US’ right to freedom of navigation and gradually squeeze all the rival claimants out of th South China Sea,” he said.