A look at some recent key developments in the South China Sea, where China is pitted against smaller neighbors in multiple disputes over islands, coral reefs and lagoons in waters crucial for global commerce and rich in fish and potential gas and oil reserves:
PHILIPPINES READY FOR TALKS AFTER WINNING ARBITRATION
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte says he’s ready for talks with China to try to solve their maritime dispute, after his government won an international arbitration case that challenged Beijing’s vast claims.
It could be the first step toward a diplomatic solution to tensions that have been building up since China expelled Filipino fishermen from Scarborough Shoal in 2012, and constructed seven island outposts on disputed reefs.
China says the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration is ”null and void” because the tribunal has no jurisdiction in this case.
The tribunal ruled that China’s nine-dash line encompassing much of the sea violates international maritime law because it encroaches on the Philippines’ own 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
Duterte asked former President Fidel Ramos to travel to China and start the discussions. However, the 88-year-old former leader cited his age and other commitments in suggesting he may not be up for the job.
Duterte’s goal of repairing relations with China – he already talked about his desire for Chinese-financed railways – will be constricted by the tribunal’s ruling, and he could face fierce opposition at home if he tries to give Beijing concessions. Philippine Solicitor General Jose Calida said the ruling will form the basis for any negotiations.
China, on the other hand, says the opposite: talks are OK, but the ruling is not.
”After the storm of this arbitration has passed, and the sky has cleared, we hope this day (of negotiations) will come quickly,” said Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin, adding that China believed cooperation would also bring Filipinos ”tangible benefits.”
President Barack Obama’s nominee for the next US ambassador to the Philippines, Sung Kim, said the United States would support China-Philippines negotiations that were free from ”coercion and undue pressure.”
The US Navy’s top admiral, meanwhile, arrived in Beijing Sunday for talks with his Chinese counterpart about the South China Sea and other issues. The visit by Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations, also will include a tour of the aircraft carrier Liaoning in its home port of Qingdao.
FILIPINO FISHERMEN TURNED BACK FROM SCARBOROUGH SHOAL
Testing the waters in the wake of the ruling, Filipino fishermen tried to gain access to Scarborough Shoal, a tiny uninhabited outcrop, but were blocked by China’s coast guard.
Footage showed the Filipino boat being tailed by a white Chinese coast guard ship and Chinese personnel using a bullhorn to order the Filipinos to leave ”this area immediately.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said that ”if anyone challenges China’s rights and interests by taking provocative actions” based on the ruling, ”China will surely make a resolute response.”
The Philippines and its ally the US are watching carefully how Beijing reacts to the ruling. There are concerns that China may turn Scarborough Shoal into another military outpost, but so far, all signs are that Beijing wants to keep the status quo.
Both China and the US have ramped up military presence in the region. At a US congressional hearing, retired Pacific commander Adm. Dennis Blair said the US should be willing to use force against China in case of ”aggression” at Scarborough Shoal.
According to the Navy Times, US destroyers have been quietly stalking Scarborough Shoal and Beijing’s man-made islands farther south in the Spratlys, but did not cross the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit.
Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force published photos of its newest H-6K bombers flying over Scarborough Shoal. Chinese media also reported the first civilian flights to Mischief Reef and Subi Reef, two of the three locations where Beijing constructed airfields.
BEIJING SAYS IT MAY DECLARE AIR DEFENSE IDENTIFICATION ZONE
China says if its interests in the South China Sea are threatened, it could declare an air defense identification zone in the area. Such a move would be seen as a threat to freedom of navigation, which the US has promised to uphold.
”If our security is being threatened, of course we have the right to demarcate a zone. This would depend on our overall assessment,” China’s Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said.
”We hope that other countries will not take this opportunity to threaten China and (instead) work with China to protect the peace and stability of the South China Sea, and not let it become the origin of a war,” he said.
In 2013, China set up a similar air zone over disputed islands in the East China Sea, requiring all aircraft entering the area to notify Chinese authorities or be subjected to ”emergency military measures” if they disobey orders from Beijing. The US and others refuse to recognize the zone.
CHINA GETS MILD REBUKE AT ASEM BUT ASEAN SILENT
China didn’t want any mention of the South China Sea at a summit of Asian and European leaders in Ulaanbataar, the Mongolian capital.
In the end, a statement by the meeting’s chair, Mongolia, noted that the leaders agreed ”on the critical importance of confidence building measures, of refraining from the use or threat of force, and of disputes being resolved in accordance with principles of international law, the UN Charter and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.”
”Still, it is not easy to agree with our Chinese partners when it comes to this issue … it was a difficult task but also promising,” said European Council President Donald Tusk.
Beijing was more successful in preventing any such statement being issued by the Association of Southeast Nations. Half of the 10 ASEAN countries have some sort of South China Sea dispute with Beijing, but China’s ally Cambodia said it does not want the bloc to mention the ruling.