China wins South China Sea control a year after arbitration loss

August 21, 2017 14:46
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged ASEAN members to unite against “non-regional forces”. Photo: Reuters

A year after China lost an arbitration case brought against it by the Philippines under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea regarding their dispute in the South China Sea, China has emerged the victor in real terms as it flouted the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision and the Philippines, under the Rodrigo Duterte government, did an about-turn by adopting a policy of cooperation with Beijing.

Meanwhile, Vietnam, another country with territorial claims in the South China Sea, has bowed to China’s superior might after threats from Beijing and ceased oil exploration activities in an area within its exclusive economic zone.

Little wonder, then, that last month, a year after the arbitration case, a spokesman of China’s foreign ministry, Geng Shuang, declared: “With the concerted efforts of China, the Philippines and other ASEAN countries, the situation in the South China Sea has stabilized and taken on a good trend.”

In other words, flouting international law works. With little external support, the small countries of Southeast Asia have little choice but to make the best of a bad situation.

China wants to keep it that way. The week before ASEAN opened its annual meetings, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged ASEAN members to unite against “non-regional forces” – rather like the fox telling chickens not to let anyone else into the henhouse.

The identity of these outside forces was clear to all. On August 7, the United States, Japan and Australia held a ministerial meeting of the Trilateral Strategic Dialogue and issued a joint statement. There was a paragraph on the South China Sea.

“The ministers called on China and the Philippines to abide by the Arbitral Tribunal's 2016 Award in the Philippines-China arbitration, as it is final and legally binding on both parties,” the statement said.

Responding to the announcement that China and ASEAN had reached agreement on a framework for a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea, the statement “urged ASEAN member states and China to ensure that the COC be finalized in a timely manner, and that it be legally binding, meaningful, effective and consistent with international law”.

China did not appreciate such unsolicited advice. Wang Yi said some countries “outside the South China Sea are still dwelling on the past and turning a blind eye to positive changes of the situation”.

Officially, Beijing espouses a policy of resolving problems through dialogue and negotiations. But the reality of its military power is ever present. China claims almost the entire South China Sea.

Thus, Duterte disclosed in May that President Xi Jinping had told him that if the Philippines tried to drill for oil in an area within Manila’s exclusive economic zone, China would declare war.

In June, after Vietnam granted the Spanish energy firm Repsol permission to drill for gas within its exclusive economic zone, China issued repeated warnings. Finally, Vietnam’s ambassador to China was told that, unless the drilling stopped, China would take military action. Hanoi backed down.

This month, ASEAN marked its 50th anniversary with its usual series of meetings. A statement was issued after a meeting of its 10 foreign ministers. As in previous years, the South China Sea was discussed but, this time, the statement did not mention China by name.

But it did take note of “the concerns expressed by some Ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region”.

Foreign Minister Wang found comfort in the fact that the section this year “is much shorter than that of the past” and did not mention China. He also declared that China had ceased its reclamation activities in 2015.

This was rebutted by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

“China’s own reclamation work did not end in mid-2015 with the completion of its artificial islands in the Spratlys,” it said while releasing recent photographs. “Beijing continues to reclaim land farther north, in the Paracel Islands.”

One person who believed China had stopped reclamation was the Philippine foreign secretary, Alan Peter Cayetano. He had lobbied against referring to land reclamation because the Chinese “are not claiming land anymore”. Evidently, however, his ASEAN associates weren’t as trusting and thus land reclamation was again cited.

So, ironically, despite losing in the Arbitral Tribunal, China has won effective control of the South China Sea. Unless the US, Japan, Australia and others are willing to go beyond issuing pious statements, China has shown that it pays to defy international law.

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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.