Flashpoint at South China Sea

China claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea as its sovereign waters and rejects a 2016 international arbitration ruling by an independent arbitral tribunal established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), of which it is a State Party to UNCLOS. The ruling stated China has no legal basis for the expansive claims. The tribunal also ruled that China had infringed on the Philippines’ sovereign rights. China dismissed the ruling as “nothing more than a piece of waste paper”. 

It is plausible that China does not want to use international arbitration to settle territorial disputes so as to avoid appearing weak domestically. By unilaterally insisting on sovereignty, based on military, economic, and diplomatic powers, rather than submit the outcome of its claims to international legal rulings, China is also showing the world its status as a global superpower. Both outcomes will help to whip up nationalism to solidify support for the Communist Party of China (CCP).

In addition, should China open the proverbial Pandora’s box by officially permitting its South China Sea claims to be examined and ruled on in international courts, it could, by extension, permit its treatment of ethnic minorities like the Uyghurs in Xinjiang to be subjected to international scrutiny and investigation too, unthinkable in the view of the CCP.

At Scarborough Shoal, the tribunal said China was culpable in restricting traditional rights originally enjoyed by Filipino fishermen, and that Chinese patrol vessels had physically impeded Philippine fishing boats, adding to collision risks. The tribunal stated that China’s land reclamation projects and construction of artificial islands had led to “severe harm to the coral reef environment and violated its obligation to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems and the habitat of depleted, threatened, or endangered species”.

The CCP, through the various state media, undermined the 2016 ruling. Xinhua slammed the ruling as an “ill-founded” decision that was “naturally null and void”. The People’s Daily, lambasted the tribunal for glossing over “basic truths” and “trampling” on international laws and norms, and said both the government and the people firmly opposed the ruling, and would neither acknowledge or accept it. The China Daily said the “outrageously one-sided ruling” implied that military confrontation in the region had become more likely.

In recent months, there were numerous confrontations between Filipino boats and Chinese Coast Guard vessels in the disputed waters. In a reboot of U.S.-Philippines relationship after former Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot to China and gave the snub to the U.S., president Ferdinand Marcos Jr turned to strengthening the alliance with the U.S. and other allies. In response, the CCP has sought to portray the alliance as part of the U.S.’ “imperialist” efforts to “contain” China via proxy countries like the Philippines. 

During the presidency of former Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte, China was emboldened to further assert its pugilism and sovereignty claims in waters disputed by Manila. Duterte’s accommodative policies towards China have been the fodder for many of his critics for being weak on asserting “Filipino interests” and “squandering” opportunities for the Philippines following the 2016 international court ruling. 

It is precisely because Manila tried to adopt a clientele approach towards Beijing, that Beijing’s persistent sovereignty claims and military assertiveness in the contested South China Sea waters were made even more evident, notwithstanding Filipino accommodations and restraint in staking Manila’s own claims during the Duterte era.

Furthermore, Beijing’s recent use of water cannon, to the detriment of Filipino soldiers and vessels, makes Beijing’s claim that it is using bilateral negotiations via peaceful means to settle its disputes with Manila even more untenable.

Photo credit: iStock/ Ian Waldraff. Vietnamese fishing boat off the coast of Con Dao, South China Sea.

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