China risks reputation damage in rejecting UNCLOS ruling

The international arbitration tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has ruled in favor of the Philippines in its historic case against China over the West Philippine Sea.

While the smaller nations in contention against China in the South China Sea (SCS) conflict expressed their support for the ruling, Beijing remained defiant, saying it does not recognise the ruling while Xinhua news agency said the ruling was ill-founded.

The tribunal said China violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone when it constructed artificial islands in disputed areas, stopped Filipinos from fishing and not stopping Chinese from fishing n the zone.

“The Tribunal concluded that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line,” the tribunal said in a statement.

The tribunal altogether rejected China’s fabricated generation of an exclusive economic zone, declaring that certain sea areas are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines because those areas are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China.

China is called upon by all parties to respect the ruling, and to act accordingly, by following the Court’s decision despite its outright rejection of the ruling.

However, the ruling is binding, and it could lead to a form of militarisation of the SCS by major global super powers, said observers, who added that it is something that should be averted.

In an editorial in globaltimes.cn, the portal said so far, none of the concerned parties want military confrontation. But all are ratcheting up military preparations. The South China Sea has been clouded by unprecedented tensions. It’s uncertain where the situation will head to.

A day before the ruling, Chinese vessels were patrolling the disputed zones, taunting the Philippines and other claimants with its military might and apparently showing its decision not respect the Hague court ruling anytime soon. It has been carrying out exercises near the disputed Paracel islands, in what was seen as the biggest and most aggressive military exercise in the region.

China’s controversial claims in the disputed SCS met with protests and contest from a host of nations, members of the Asean, saw its day in court thanks to the Philippines which argued Beijing’s activity in the region was against international law.

Chonnam National University Department of Sociology Professor George Katsiaficas said the world should expect the United States to sacrifice corporate profits for the sake of military positioning in the Asia Pacific region.

He said to Malay Mail the United States has been doing everything possible to surround and isolate China militarily and politically. This may seem disingenuous in so far as the economies of the two countries are massively intertwined, he said, commenting on the expectations the ruling will favor the Philippines.

American foreign policy of late has less to do with economics than with military strategy, Katsiaficas said.

China claims about 90% of the South China Sea, including reefs and islands also claimed by others.

China said it does not recognise the tribunal and has refused to take part in the court sessions, though it signed the UNCLOS, together with Manilla.

Observers said China risks damaging its reputation by rejecting the ruling, and that it could act more aggressively, with enhanced military presence and further occupation of the disputed Islands claimed by the Philippines in particular.

The ruling will be binding but the tribunal or the Permanent Court of Arbitration has no powers of enforcement. The tribunal said it was the appropriate body to rule on at least seven of the 15 claims made by the Philippines, and it was still considering the other eight.

The case was brought in 2013 to the UNCLOS tribunal, with Manila contesting China’s claims and activity in the SCS.

The Philippines authorities said the Chinese manoeuvers in the seas were contrary to international law, and that China was interfering with fishing — an important source of food for many of the claimant nations against China — with its dredging sand to build artificial islands, and endangering ships. China, in short, is accused of abusing its powers in the region, as well as a bullying smaller states that are unable to fight back militarily.

The Philippines has also asked the tribunal to reject China’s claims to sovereignty over waters within a “nine-dash line”, the dotted boundary that Beijing claims as its own, with as much as 90% of the South China Sea, that appears on official Chinese maps.

A rejection by China will put the Asean in a difficult situation since the association does not have enforcement powers altogether and will have to depend on foreign intervention in the SCS.

The United States has already sent an aircraft carrier and fighter jets to mark its presence in what it calls ‘international’ waters, thus reinforcing its right of navigation arguments.

But China rejects all foreign intervention, claiming the seas are under its control since its capture of various Islets and territories from Vietnam, and occupying land claimed directly by the Philippines.

The Chinese have taken advantage of overlapping claims by Asean members, as well as the long absence of global superpowers in the region to reinforce its military and political powers in both the SCS and the Asean region.

While China has indicated it is gearing its military to confront any foreign intervention in the SCS, the Asean’s division does not help the US or its allies.

The Asean is divided into two main camps, one that is pro-US intervention, and the other that is pro-negotiation with China and could oppose any form of military intervention.

An outright rejection by China of the UNCLOS ruling could have dire economic, political and military consequences for the entire region, as it could drag global superpowers in the disputed seas.

This, in turn, would endanger the economic activities within the SCS, including the shipping lines that cross the region ferrying goods to and from global markets.

Observers said there are trillions of dollars of business at stake in the SCS conflict, not forgetting the disruption of livelihood of the millions of people who lives inthe coastal areas of the SCS.

They said China should act responsibly and it should negotiate with the Asean on finding a clear-cut solution to a problem that has been dragging for far too long.

It is imperative for the Asean to use this ruling as a platform to unite against any potential rejection of the ruling by China.

All Asean members should have a common voice on the SCS issue

The Asean should continue pushing Beijing to abide by a code of conduct that the Southeast Asian states have established, and eliminate all signs of division among the member states.

At least, show some unity that would bring the world powers to support their views, and assist them in managing the SCS conflicts.

This unity is needed for the Asean to maintain its economic clout, one that has helped the region gain much in terms of foreign direct investment.

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