22 October 2016
This satellite image shows where China has been building artificial islands in the South China Sea. Beijing has been rallying international support for its claim to these disputed waters. Photo: NYT
This satellite image shows where China has been building artificial islands in the South China Sea. Beijing has been rallying international support for its claim to these disputed waters. Photo: NYT

South China Sea tribunal ruling: It’s still up to China

Even before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague announced in late June that the arbitral tribunal in the case of the Philippines against China will issue its award, or decision, on July 12, the Chinese government had been lobbying furiously around the world for support for its position of not accepting or recognizing any ruling made by the international tribunal.

On July 9, Hong Lei, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, said at least 60 countries, more than 30 of them from Africa, have voiced support for China’s stance.

This is a reflection of China’s increasing influence, especially in Africa, where 51 countries are benefiting from Chinese largesse.

China also appears to have stepped up its claims in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea doesn’t bestow any territorial status on low-tide elevations, which is what the majority of China-controlled features were before cement was poured on them to turn them into islands.

Yet, the foreign ministry spokesman said that “the islands, reefs, cays, sands and the relevant waters of China’s Nansha Islands are interrelated and have always been taken as a whole”.

He was seemingly making the claim that features that were below water at high tide should be recognized as natural islands and be accorded all the rights of islands under the law of the sea.

While the Philippines under President Benigno Aquino III has sought legal clarity from the arbitral tribunal, China has fought back from a position of relative moral weakness and sought to demonstrate that it has broad international support.

This is a strategy that it has been used with some success in the past, in particular when it was criticized for its human rights record.

For example, when the Norwegian Nobel Committee in 2010 awarded the Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”, Beijing responded violently against the award, against the Nobel Committee and against Norway.

It organized a boycott of the ceremony at which the Nobel Peace Prize was to be awarded, putting pressure on countries with embassies in Oslo to boycott the Oct. 8 ceremony.

Three days before that, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Jiang Yu, said: “As far as I know, at present, more than 100 countries and organizations have expressed explicit support for China opposing the Nobel Peace Prize, which fully shows that the international community does not accept the decision of the Nobel Committee.”

(In the end, 15 embassies declined the invitation to attend the ceremony, two did not reply and 46 accepted.)

It is striking how China’s words today criticizing the United States, the Philippine government and the arbitral tribunal are reminiscent of its criticisms of the Nobel Committee.

Last week, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said: “To date, more than 30 African countries have expressed their explicit support to China’s position through various channels, to which we would like to express our high appreciation. It also stands as a strong proof that standing for justice and objectiveness and upholding international rule of law is the mainstream of the international community. The arbitration and any award are obviously unpopular.”

Just as Jiang Yu insisted that China would not change “because of the interference of some clowns who are anti-China”, so today’s spokesmen insist that China would not be affected by the tribunal’s decision.

Aquino, the Philippine leader who brought the suit against China in January 2013, stepped down on June 30 and the new president, Rodrigo Duterte, has said that he wishes to improve relations with China.

The new foreign affairs secretary, Perfecto Yasay, has already made it clear that he was opposed to using the tribunal decision to humiliate China

This has improved the atmosphere considerably and may lead to a face-saving resolution for all sides.

China is saying that the Philippines must reject the tribunal’s award if it wants negotiations. That isn’t likely to happen.

However, any negotiations, if held, would not be overtly directed at implementing the tribunal’s decisions.

But since China has insisted that negotiation, not arbitration, is the only way to resolve territorial disputes, it will be under some pressure to produce an outcome that is seen as reasonable.

This is the best that can be expected. If China holds negotiations with the Philippines in good faith and they are productive, then it is likely to ease China’s disputes with other countries as well.

It’s up to China which way to go.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.

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