Yesterday’s closely watched verdict by the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration nullifying China’s ‘nine-dash line’ territorial claim over much of the South China Sea may not result in any immediate changes on the ground, but it is a shot in the arm not only for the Philippines, but also for all ASEAN member countries that have a maritime dispute with China.
As expected, China went on an overdrive condemnation campaign once the tribunal issued its award.
A lengthy white paper titled ‘China Adheres to the Position of Settling Through Negotiation the Relevant Disputes between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea’ was released to ‘clarify the facts and tell the truth’ vis–a-vis the Chinese-Filipino dispute.
Yesterday’s ruling also saw the culmination of months of Chinese diplomatic parleys to not only publicise China’s ‘indisputable’ claim on large parts of the South China Sea, but also to control post-ruling reaction of neighbouring countries, including ASEAN, and projection of the international support that the country had garnered on the issue.
Chinese state media had denounced the impending verdict weeks before and also trumped up the fact that China had received support of 60 nations with regard to its policy on the South China Sea.
Many countries have objected to these reports with angry denial letters being shot off to the bureau chief of Xinhua, China’s state news agency.
By refusing to recognize the court’s ruling, despite being a signatory of the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China may be hoping to hold on to its territorial claims in the South China Sea by arm-twisting the ASEAN claimants into not actively pursuing the implementation of the verdict.
However, as a rising world power, its total disregard for international law puts to question China’s reputation as a responsible nation.
It also raises serious doubts on China’s sincerity towards its much touted policy of neighbourhood diplomacy with the declared objective to ensure that China’s neighbours take advantage of the country’s economic and technological advancements to achieve win-win reciprocity, enhance regional cooperation, as well as work together to establish the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st century Maritime Silk Road Belt to enhance interconnectivity.
ASEAN’s discomfort with China’s constant pressure to fall in line on the South China Sea dispute has been palpable, and was clearly visible during the ASEAN plus China Special Foreign Ministers’ Meeting that was held in Yuxi, China in June 2016.
During the meeting, China stepped up pressure on Laos and Cambodia to refrain from agreeing to an ASEAN joint statement that expressed ‘serious concern’ over the rising tension in the South China Sea.
Subsequently, despite ASEAN members failing to reach a consensus on the joint statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malaysia went ahead with uploading it on its website, a deliberate step taken to expose China’s pressure tactics on the ASEAN.
The joint statement had to be later taken off the website ‘for urgent amendments’, due to China blocking the possibility of the ASEAN Foreign Ministers reaching a consensus.
China resorting to bullying tactics did not sway the Permanent Court of Arbitration to rule in favor of The Philippines.
Moreover, the ruling puts all ASEAN countries directly involved in the South China Sea dispute, in a position of strength vis-a-vis China at the future rounds of meetings to discuss issues related to the South China Sea dispute, including the consultations on the Code of Conduct (COC).
The Chinese government’s future dealing of the issue will put to test its claims regarding ‘peaceful rise’, commitment to regional stability and mutually beneficial relations with its neighbours.