Beijing will ignore the verdict handed down against it last week at the Hague and will continue to develop disputed islands in the South China Sea, first for tourism, and then send more civilian settlers there.
Only military action will be able to prevent this but none of the other claimants are willing to take this route, especially while the United States is in the twilight of a presidential term and the American public doesn’t want more foreign military risks.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague censured Beijing’s efforts to build man-made islands in the disputed seas and ruled that there was no historical basis for its claim to 85 percent of the waters.
“The award is a historic win not only for the Philippines,” said the Philippines’ Solicitor General Jose Calida. “It renews humanity’s faith in a rules-based global order.”
But the ruling has no enforcement mechanism; Beijing has repeatedly said that it is illegal and will have no influence over its actions.
So far it has built military installations from runways to radar stations on the islands and began to develop a tourist industry.
Earlier this year, the mayor of Sansha city, on Woody Island in the Paracels, said about 30,000 people have already visited and “many people with a patriotic spirit want to try it”.
Currently tourism is restricted to mainland passport holders, who have been allowed to travel to non-military areas in the South China Sea since 2013.
On July 13 – after the Hague verdict – China Southern and Hainan Airlines each announced that they would begin trial flights to a new airstrip on Mischief Reef.
In June, the official media said Chinese cruise ships would regularly bring tourists to the Spratly Islands, which are far farther to the south than the Paracels.
“The Nansha Islands (Spratlys) are virgin territory for China’s tourism industry,” said Sun Xiangtao, a tourism official in Hainan province.
Developing the tourism industry is the first step toward a self-sustaining economy in the islands. When conditions are ripe, non-mainlanders will be invited to visit there.
The next step will be the creation of more land, the building of schools, hospitals and other civic amenities and large-scale human settlement on the islands.
Beijing is presenting this as a grand national project, reclaiming rights it said it has possessed for centuries. New settlers will be given financial incentives to persuade them to go.
In the days before the verdict, three fleets of the People’s Liberation Army carried out large-scale exercises using live ammunition near the islands, a warning to any country that dared to intervene in this project.
New Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has heard the message. In his first comments on the verdict, last Thursday evening, he spoke soberly, without his usual exuberance: “War is not an option. So, what is the other side? Peaceful talk.”
He has invited former president Fidel Ramos to go to Beijing for talks; he is a very high-profile envoy, a nomination which Beijing appreciated.
The problem for Duterte and other states in the region with claims on the islands is that they are, to a greater or lesser extent, reliant on Chinese direct investment, tourism and access to the mainland market.
None wants to cut off these economic benefits. In addition, none has the military muscle to challenge Beijing on its own.
That would only be possible with strong and decisive action by the US, in concert with the Southeast Asian states.
But Washington has no stomach for a military conflict or the risk of one.
The next six months are the twilight of the presidency of US President Barack Obama.
He has failed to withdraw from Afghanistan or close Guantanamo Bay, as he had promised.
The American public has no stomach for another foreign war, especially over islands thousands of kilometers away, of no direct strategic value to the US.
The timing is propitious for Beijing. It does not face the risk of sanctions similar to those imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine and annexation of the Crimea. It remains very much engaged in Asian and global diplomacy.
The next US president, be it Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton, will take office with a long and complex domestic agenda – including an enormous budget deficit, gun control, immigration and whether to implement major trade agreements with Asia and Europe.
All these will rank higher on the president’s agenda than sovereignty on remote islands in the South China Sea.
So, in the Hague, China lost a battle against its neighbors, but it has the economic and military muscle to win the war against them.
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