The South China sea ruling: the view from Southeast Asia

The South China sea ruling: the view from Southeast Asia

On 12 July, The Hague arbitration case instituted by the Philippines against China unanimously found in favour of the Philippines. The Court’s decision has far reaching consequences, regionally and internationally. Whilst claimant states will welcome the ruling, divisions have already surfaced amongst the states of Southeast Asia.

The arbitration ruling

The Philippines brought the arbitration case against China to seek rulings on the source of the parties’ rights and obligations in the South China Sea, to ascertain whether Chinese actions had violated the Law of the Sea by interfering with the Philippines’ sovereign rights in the region, and to rule on whether China’s large-scale land seizure since the arbitration commenced had aggravated the parties’ dispute.

China officially refused to participate in the arbitration, claiming the case was one of territorial sovereignty and thusnot within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal.The Tribunal, meanwhile, addressed China’s concerns on the scope of its jurisdiction, and ultimately rejected this argument.

It did accept that there was a dispute between the parties concerning territorial sovereignty. However, it emphasised that the Tribunal does not rule on any question of sovereignty over land territory, and ruled that the matters submitted to arbitration by the Philippines did not concern sovereignty.

The landmark ruling on historic rights and maritime entitlements in the South China Sea found that “there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over waters…. within the ‘nine-dash line’”.

Finally, the Tribunal concluded that maritime features claimed by China, such as the Spratly Islands, were not capable of generating an exclusive economic zone. Given this, certain sea areas were within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines and, as such, China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights by interfering with Philippine fishing, and by constructing artificial islands.

The aftermath of the South China Sea ruling

In the aftermath of the ruling, China’s President Xi Jinping reasserted China’s claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea. A statement from the Foreign Ministry argued that the Tribunal’s decision “is invalid and has no binding force”, and that “China does not accept or recognise it”. China has since increased military activities in the disputed waters, mounting further patrols and staging live firing exercises

Meanwhile, The Foreign Secretary of the Philippines argued the ruling was “significant”, and called on “all those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety”.Notably, the Philippines response has been somewhat subdued, especially considering the overwhelming legal victory. This is likely due to the delicate balancing act the new Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte will now have to navigate.

The Philippines does not want to be at the receiving end of China’s anger. If the Philippines demands China accept the ruling, it may lead to open confrontation. This is something that the Philippines can little afford.

Alternatively, Duterte may lose domestic support if he makes any concessions to China. It is likely Duterte will proceed with caution, hoping to use the ruling as a basis for diplomatic negotiations.

Regional impact

The regional response to the South China Sea dispute has been notably varied. Vietnam, also a claimant state to maritime territory in the South China Sea, has welcomed the arbitration result.

Its Minister for Foreign Affairs, Le Hai Binh, released a statement saying, “Vietnam strongly supports the resolution of disputes in the East Vietnam Sea through peaceful measures, including diplomatic and legal procedures, without using or threatening to use violence.” It added that “Vietnam continues to assert the sovereign rights over Hoang Sa [Paracel] and Truong Sa [Spratly] archipelagos”.

Clearly, the Tribunal ruling is as much a victory for Vietnam as it is the Philippines.

However, Vietnam must tread cautiously too, undoubtedly hoping to avoid a similar backlash from China. Vietnamese authorities have attempted to restrain anti-Chinese sentiments, which have risen in the aftermath of the ruling. Close economic engagement with China has ultimately left Vietnam seeking to adopt a more measured response.

Other, non-claimant, regional states have been notably split on the ruling. Indeed, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has failed to reach a consensus on how to deal with China’s maritime expansion.

The ASEAN foreign ministers met in Laos on July 24, with the South China Sea dispute expected to dominate proceedings. However, despite deliberating for several hours, the ministers remained deadlocked over how to confront China following the Tribunal’s ruling.

China has been accused of driving a wedge among ASEAN states, with Cambodia blocking members from referring to the arbitration ruling in their joint statement. Cambodia is heavily reliant on Chinese aid and investment, and it is believed that China has used this dependence to its advantage.

Regional impasse

In conclusion, the Tribunal ruling may not be the overwhelming victory it at first appears. With both the Philippines and Vietnam treading cautiously, and other regional states divided on how to proceed, China may still emerge from this generally unscathed.

China has confirmed that it is open to negotiations. With $5.3 trillion total annual trade passing through the South China Sea, open confrontation is not in any state’s interests, and must be avoided at all costs.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Laura Southgate

Laura Southgate is Lecturer in International Security at the Centre for International Security and Resilience, Cranfield University, located at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. She has a PhD in International Relations from the University of Otago, New Zealand, and an MA in International Relations and Security, and a BA in Law and Politics, from the University of Liverpool.