Wednesday January 17, 2018
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US battleship in South China Sea corners China

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By Arka Mondal

With the US, recently, sending a warship to the troubled waters, China came under tremendous pressure over its control in the South China Sea. Another blow to the China’s claim in the maritime region came when an international tribunal ruled that it had jurisdiction in a case brought by the Philippines on maritime dispute case.

China’s artificial island building move is expected to get another jolt with the pro-American countries eyeing the initiative as a security threat to the neighbouring countries as China keeps flexing its naval prowess.

Furthermore, China’s Foreign Ministry declaring that the international tribunal’s ruling was “null and void” drew flak from various global quarters. However, neither the ruling by the tribunal nor the US deploying warship would affect China from asserting control in the sea known to be rich in resources.

It is evident that Beijing is putting a higher priority on its strategic interests than its international reputation.

The Chinese strategy has also threatened its reputation in the global arena at a time when it is vying with the US in the field of economy and military.

The verdict by the international tribunal will bolster the strategies of United States which has undoubtedly failed to curb China from asserting control over 80 per cent of the South China Sea. Welcoming the verdict, the US hoped that Beijing would too accept the final ruling slated to be pronounced next year.

Notably, both China and Philippines consented to the setting up of the tribunal which came into place based on the provision of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. However, after the Philippine case was filed before the tribunal in The Hague in January 2013, China boycotted the proceedings.

The Philippine case contends that China’s massive territorial claims are invalid under the convention. The tribunal on Thursday decided it had jurisdiction in the case.

In a freedom of navigation exercise this week, the US spotted an artificial island which the Philippines claimed that China had illegally set up. The tribunal is also expected to examine the Sino occupation on a number of reefs and shoals.

“The fact that the tribunal did not reject jurisdiction on anything in the case brought by the Philippines, and could end up ruling against it on all these counts, introduces uncertainty and anxiety for China,” Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, was quoted as saying.

Malcolm Cook, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said that outside of China, many maritime law experts feel the Philippines has a strong case and are skeptical of the legal basis for China’s expansive claims, which it says are rooted in history. China roughly demarcates this vast area on maps with a nine-dash line.

Despite China’s latest legal setback, both Glaser and Cook apprehended that there would be no change in China’s plans.

“The Chinese navy has a very strong interest in gaining greater sea control over the South China Sea and this interest and its pursuit will likely not be affected by tribunal rulings,” Cook said.

In all, six Asian governments have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, straddling some of the world’s busiest sea lanes and in areas with rich fishing grounds and potential undersea oil and gas fields.

China needs to control this area to deter any intervention by the United States. That is why the sea is vital to China’s sovereignty, since most of the countries are US allies.

The sailing of the US guided missile destroyer within 12 nautical miles (22-kilometer) of the reef was one of the boldest steps by the Obama administration which is facing a long-time demand from the Congress to thwart the island-building process by China.

However, the dual development, the verdict from the court and the sending of warship, can compel Beijing to abide by the UN convention. But, probably on the long run, China’s stand on the South China Sea would not change.

(With inputs from TNN)

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Conflict and Diplomacy exercise on the South China Sea

Many nations have urged Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which sets maritime zones of control based on coastlines.

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Chinese territory
China, whose contentious claims to more than 95 percent of the region—first espoused by the nationalist government in 1947
One-third of global maritime traffic. An estimated $5 trillion in annual trade. Six claimant nations. One body of water. And that’s just on the surface.

Welcome to the South China Sea, the geographic commons of Southeast Asia’s navigable rimland. Its 3.5 million square kilometers of underlying bedrock contain oil and natural gas deposits that, by official U.S. estimates, are at least equal to Mexico’s and, by some contested Chinese estimates, might be second only to Saudi Arabia’s. Also, home to lucrative fisheries and supply routes that carry 80 percent of China’s crude imports, the territorially disputed region may be the most strategically important waterway of the 21st century.

Tracing shorelines of sprawling, hard-to-govern archipelago nation-states to the south, the sea is bound to the north by China, whose contentious claims to more than 95 percent of the region—first espoused by the nationalist government in 1947—cite ancient maritime records.

For centuries, these waters also have been vital to the economic survival of neighboring Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

The waters are also prized by regional non-claimants. For U.S.-allied Japan and South Korea, situated far to the north, South China Sea shipping lanes provide access to trade-intensive waters of the Indian Ocean, via which more than half of their respective energy needs are met. For non-claimant Indonesia, Natuna Sea fishing grounds along the southern fringe of the contested region hold vital natural gas reserves.

Many nations have urged Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which sets maritime zones of control based on coastlines. The United States, which has signed onto UNCLOS without ratifying it, often relies on the international agreement to settle territorial disputes.

China has refrained, invoking intertemporal laws based on the deep historical record, such as archaeological findings on disputed reefs and islands. At best, China views U.N.-backed codes of maritime governance as incompatible with domestic laws; at worst, it sees them as instruments of Western hegemony designed to undercut its expanding influence as a world power.

China
Even after the global pressure, China has been adamant on its stand on South China Sea. Wikimedia Commons

On the horizon

If Asia’s astonishing economic growth of the past two decades continues, however, regional stability will remain a matter of global consequence. Beyond China’s increasingly assertive land grabs and island-building campaigns—some 1,300 hectares of tiny islets have been landfilled to sustain mostly military infrastructure, including runways long enough to accommodate bombers—low-level skirmishes between Chinese naval patrols and civilian fishing fleets from neighboring countries could spark international conflict.

In July, a five-judge panel in The Hague unanimously rejected the legal basis of nearly all of China’s maritime claims. Within weeks, China’s Supreme People’s Court issued a regulation stating a “clear legal basis for China to safeguard maritime order,” in which Beijing vowed to prosecute any foreigners found fishing or prospecting in disputed waters.

Other means of settling complex territorial disputes also appear ineffective. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ long-delayed code of conduct for the South China Sea, which Beijing officials said they would finalize in 2017, would do little to resolve conflicting claims of sovereignty. Much like the Hague-based tribunal’s ruling, any legally binding ASEAN declaration would lack meaningful mechanisms of enforcement.

While the United States has long said it does not take an official position on South China Sea disputes, it steadily criticizes China’s behavior there and plans to expand defense alliances with countries that have overlapping claims. By 2021, U.S. Navy officials plan to expand the Pacific Fleet’s overseas assigned forces by approximately 30 percent.

As President Donald Trump assumed office, some observers speculated that, like his immediate predecessors, he might be called upon quickly to handle another South China Sea crisis. Just months into his first term, former President George W. Bush faced an international dispute triggered by a midair collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet near Hainan Island.

Less than seven weeks after former President Barack Obama took office, Chinese ships and planes confronted the USNS Impeccable, a surveillance ship in waters south of Hainan, and ordered it to leave. The U.S. said that it had the right to be there and that the ship was harassed, while Beijing defended its actions. Obama responded by sending a guided-missile destroyer to protect the Impeccable.

Such incidents, engineered or otherwise, are likely to continue defining the dispute as it unfolds in real time. Until broader questions of maritime sovereignty are resolved, the waterway promises to remain a fulcrum upon which the geopolitics of international trade, and thus the global economy, pivots. We’ll keep close tabs on developments here as they occur. VOA