Making Waves in the South China Sea

The Khmer Times, July 13, 2016

As expected, the International Arbitration Court has ruled in favor of the Philippines.
Last night (Asean time), the court declared that “although Chinese navigators and fishermen, as well as those from other states, had historically made use of the islands in the South China Sea, there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources.
“The tribunal concluded that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’.”
China has long rejected the unilateral arbitration case submitted by the Philippines, saying it is “illegal” and “invalid.” China’s state-run Xinhua news agency called the ruling by the “law-abusing tribunal” an “ill-founded award.”
The Chinese government issued its own statement right after the release of the award by the court.
“China has territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests,” the statement says.
“China respects and upholds the freedom of navigation and over-flight enjoyed by all states under international law in the South China Sea.”
China is willing to “work with other coastal states and the international community to ensure the safety of and the unimpeded access to the international shipping lanes in the South China Sea,” the statement added.
So what will be next?
Regional tensions are going to rise. It would be a mistake to calculate or assume that China will scale down its sovereign claims and activities in the South China Sea after the ruling.
Nationalism and the perception of an increasing security threat derived from the intervention of the US and its allies in the South China Sea will force China to be much more assertive.
China is going to strengthen its naval capabilities and speed up its activities in the South China Sea, including the construction and expansion of the artificial islands.
If necessary, China will convert these civilian outposts in the South China Sea into military bases.
The US and its allies may have calculated that their military presence in the region would deter and restrain China’s activities in the region and that the court ruling would force China to retreat from asserting sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.
They are wrong.
One of the factors shaping China’s foreign policy strategy and approach relates to “the century of humiliation” which is used by Chinese policymakers to describe how China’s global position was weakened by Western incursions that started with the Opium Wars in the 1840s.
China’s Global Times warned the involvement of the US in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea could potentially lead to “military confrontation.”
If the US and China cannot find common ground in approaching the disputes, conflicts will be hard to avoid.
Having said that, the possibility of having a military confrontation between the two major powers remains extremely low.
China and the US need to develop a functional mechanism to build trust and confidence and they need to promote an effective channel of communication to avoid misperceptions and miscalculations.
Deepening economic interdependence is not enough. China and the US must work together to strengthen military-to-military ties.
Both China and the US need to sincerely advocate and support the central role of Asean in sustaining the habit of regional cooperation, and more importantly in constructing an inclusive regional security architecture that can meet the needs of all countries.
In the upcoming Asean meetings, the Philippines should not force other Asean members to issue a joint statement to support the court ruling, given there is no consensus within Asean.
Otherwise Asean may face another fiasco similar to what happened in Phnom Penh in 2012.
The viable values of Asean are the adherence to the principles of non-interference and consensus-based decision-making.
Violating these two principles could lead to the destruction of Asean.

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