An obscure court is set to rule on a testy dispute between China and the Philippines over remote islets in the South China Sea. The stakes are high for the U.S. and its allies in Asia.

A Filipino protester raises his fist during a demonstration against China's reclamation activities in the South China Sea, Makati city, Philippines, 17 April 2015. (EPA/Dennis M. Sabangan)
A Filipino protester raises his fist during a demonstration against China’s reclamation activities in the South China Sea, Makati city, Philippines, 17 April 2015.
(EPA/Dennis M. Sabangan)

By Paul Eckert

An obscure international maritime arbitration panel in the Netherlands will deliver a ruling on July 12 on a testy dispute between China and the Philippines over remote islets in the South China Sea.

The United States is not a party to the case in the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Washington has not even joined the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which underpins the suit Manila filed in early 2013 after the Chinese occupation of an atoll in waters off the Philippines’ west coast.

But the stakes are high for the United States and its allies in Asia.

Like the Philippines, several of them are locked in maritime territorial disputes with China and look for U.S. support in the face of a massive two-year Chinese campaign of dredging and island building in contested waters straddling important shipping lanes.

South China Sea claims map (Wikimedia Commons/Voice of America)(/em>
South China Sea claims map (Wikimedia Commons/Voice of America)

The Philippines is widely expected to prevail in the ruling, which will not determine sovereignty or set maritime borders, but resolve technical points under the UNCLOS treaty, including whether the islets in dispute can generate exclusive economic zones.

China has for three years boycotted the proceedings. It has deployed diplomats and state media op-ed writers to denounce the independent UNCLOS panel and accuse Washington of engineering what it calls a “provocation” by Manila. Hawkish Chinese newspapers have issued war threats.

“The Philippines must be dissuaded from making any further provocation. Otherwise, China would not sit idle,” Dai Bingguo, former Chinese state councilor, told a seminar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank in Washington five days before the expected ruling.

It is the reaction of China, which claims it has had “indisputable” ownership of about 90 percent of the South China Sea since antiquity, that could set the stage for greater tensions in the Asia-Pacific region at a time when the Middle East is on fire, Europe is in disarray and a turbulent world economy can ill afford more instability.

Threat to post-war international order

Nobody is predicting immediate military conflict between the United States and China, the world’s two biggest economies and nuclear-armed military powers. Some analysts predict China might step up its island creation and fortification of reefs, including the Scarborough Shoal, the atoll whose seizure by China in 2012 sparked the lawsuit.

But China’s expansive claims and zero-sum approach to the South China Sea dispute — and a similarly tense spat it has with Japan in the East China Sea — pose a threat to a carefully built post-war international order based on law.

It’s the very system that helped foster China’s 30-year economic rise.

East China Sea (Wikimedia Commons/Danbury)
East China Sea (Wikimedia Commons/Danbury)

“The importance of the issue is whether international rules will be obeyed,” Bilahari Kausikan, a Singaporean ambassador at large, told the New York Times newspaper in early July.  China “cannot pick and choose which rules to follow or only comply when convenient.”

But some analysts say Beijing has far deeper misgivings and less commitment to international law and the current order than Washington or China’s neighbors assume.

“The Chinese equate ‘rising within a rules-based order’ with ‘halting China’s rise to power.’ To live by Washington’s rules is to live under its power,” Tanner Greer, a Taiwan-based author of a security and history blog focused on Asia, wrote last month.

Beijing’s message in theory should resonate with other Asian states. Many of them share China’s experience of colonization by Western countries and invasion by Japan, and chafe under U.S. criticism over human rights or trade issues.

Mostly, however, China’s seabed dredging, island building and construction of airstrips and ports in international seas or waters claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and others have had the opposite effect.

Chinese actions have moved old foes Washington and Hanoi to reopen arms sales and fostered closer security cooperation among the United States, India, Japan and Australia. Many countries want to see more U.S. military reconnaissance flights and freedom of navigation sailings through the South China Sea.

Even non-claimant Indonesia has pushed back hard against incursions by Chinese fishing boats and Beijing’s assertions that the two countries have overlapping territorial waters.

“Bad news does not easily flow upwards.”

Franklin Lavin, a former U.S. trade negotiator and diplomat, said some of China’s diplomatic tone deafness flows from its rigid political system.

“As one might expect with a single-party system and government-controlled media, bad news does not easily flow upwards,” Lavin said in a July 7 speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“The Chinese government is probably the most insular of all major powers. This makes broad cost-benefit analysis difficult and places a high degree of automaticity in government decision-making when sometimes agility is required.”

The blogger Greer suggested that there may be little the outside world can say that would persuade China to change course on the South China Sea, a key focus of the nationalism that since the Cold War ended has replaced Communism as the guiding ideology of the ruling Communist Party of China.

“The CPC legitimizes its rule through an inherently revanchist nationalist narrative,” Greer wrote. “The most important audience for Chinese actions in these seas is not the Americans, or even the Southeast Asians and the Japanese, but the Chinese public.”

“This narrative requires the Chinese to come off as the winners somewhere. The South China Sea is the least dangerous place for them to make the attempt.”

(The views are the author’s.)


peckertPaul Eckert took up the post of director of English News at Radio Free Asia in Washington in 2015 after a 20-year career with Reuters that included assignments in Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul and Washington. He has covered the politics, economics and diplomacy of Asian countries as well as the World Bank, IMF, UN, ASEAN, three Olympic Games, a FIFA World Cup and natural disasters.

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