China’s Claim to the South China Sea

Akshan de Alwis

Diplomatic Courier, November 27, 2015

On July 7, a high-profile legal team representing the Philippines began oral arguments at the five-judge Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague. The issue at hand: China’s claim to the South China Sea.

It was the first time that China’s claim to nearly 90% of the South China Sea was scrutinized by an international legal body, and the entire world watched with interest.

The suit at the PCA was first filed in 2013, when the Philippines government asked the court to invalidate the vast majority of China’s claims in the region.

Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which the Philippines and China are both signatories to, each nation is allotted a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). However, China’s current claims in the South China Sea intersect with Philippines’ EEZ, and is the source of Manila’s set of pleas to the PCA.

China’s sovereign claims, commonly called the “nine-dash line” are backed mainly by historical records that show ancient Chinese presence in the region. This method of demarcation was first published in 1947 and has defined China’s position on the South China Sea for the last half-century, despite no formal claim to the area.

Instead of proper legal tracks, China’s claim on the nautical corridor has been aggressively militaristic, bullying the smaller neighboring countries out of the zone. This June, satellite imagery revealed that China was nearing the completion of a $12 billion airstrip on the small reef, Fiery Cross, in the South China Sea. It’s a bold new form of military presence, which the United States has repeatedly claimed crosses the line of brinkmanship.

There’s a good reason for China to be so belligerent over the South China Sea—it’s one of the world’s most important economic zones.

Around $5 trillion in cargo passes through the sea each year, and is the connecting artery of Asia’s trade with Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Just as lucrative are the drilling potentials in the sea, which are estimated to hold vast reserves of oil and natural gas. The small nation of Brunei has seen a massive influx of wealth due to its oil reserves, and much of the region wants to get in on the black-gold rush.

At ASEAN in 2010, former Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi is quoted as saying, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” It’s a perfect summation of China’s approach to regional diplomacy: nothing is going to stop China’s domination of the South China Sea.

For the Philippines, who cannot hope to match up with China’s military infrastructure, the legal system the last recourse—and China has managed to block that avenue too.

China has refused to participate in any sort of legal proceeding regarding the demarcation of the South China Sea, and instead claims that bilateral negotiations are the best way to resolve any territorial dispute.

However, the only legal organ that can clarify territorial claims is the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which requires both parties to be present. With China declining to play party to the court, the Philippines is left with few options.

This case at the PCA is the product of cunning legal maneuvers by Manila. Simply put, the Philippines are not asking the PCA to make a decision of sovereignty, but to declare China’s “nine-dash line” as out-of-line with the UNCLOS.

The arguments are only the first step in a lengthy trial. In December of last year, China released a “position paper” claiming that the Philippines’ thinly-veiled goals in this court case are “territorial sovereignty over certain maritime features in the South China Sea.” Acknowledging these concerns, the PCA announced a hearing to determine whether the tribunal has jurisdiction over the issue of China’s adherence to the UNCLOS.

Even if the Philippines were to win the case against China, it will only serve as a major symbolic victory. China has already declared that it will not follow through with a negative ruling. Some view the move by Manila as nothing but a political gambit—Philippine President Benigno Aquino is attempting to use the South China Sea concern as a method to drum up national support for the upcoming election. He has controversially compared China’s aggression in the South China Sea to Nazi Germany’s expansionism before World War II.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying explained at the start of the Hague tribunal that the “unilateral” arbitration was “a political provocation in the guise of law that seeks to deny China’s national sovereignty in the South China Sea”.

As tension in the South China Sea mounts, every little move has a massive impact. Brinkmanship is a dangerous game to play, and especially when China is the opponent. Hopefully this arbitration process will be the beginning of the end, and not the end of the beginning.


Original article China’s Claim to the South China Sea


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