Last month, I attended several international conferences, such as the 30th Asia-Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur and the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. I also visited quite a few important think tanks in Japan and the US, and participated in a series of round-table discussions on the South China Sea issue. On almost all of these occasions, one of the most important topics was the South China Sea arbitration case unilaterally initiated by the Philippines against China.
Based on these experiences, this essay is a preliminary analysis of the possible impacts the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on July 12, 2016 will have on the South China Sea situation, China-US relations and China’s relations with its neighbors. This essay will also identify new challenges China has to face after the ruling.
Deterioration of China-US Relations
The US will, with the ruling as a pretext, employ political, diplomatic and military means to put unprecedented pressure on China. For the US, the ruling is the product of carefully planned and relentlessly executed proceedings. It presents a great opportunity for the US to wave the “banner” of international law in China’s face to force it into submission.
It is doing so because the South China Sea is not only an indispensible arena for it to maintain its strategic supremacy and hegemony in the West Pacific, but also a tool to slow down China’s rise as a maritime power. Since the US is neither a littoral state of the South China Sea nor a claimant party of the territory in dispute, the South China Sea issue should not, theoretically speaking, define China-US relations. Nor should it be a new strategic flashpoint between the two countries. Yet, the South China Sea currently has become an insurmountable security dilemma between an established and an emerging power.
Given this state of affairs, an intense “warfare” between China and the US in public opinion, diplomacy and naval/coast guard operations is foreseeable, with regard to whether China will execute the ruling. In this situation, China should be prepared both mentally and technically. Besides firmly safeguarding its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea, China also needs to manage the crisis between China and the US and prevent it from escalating, enlarging, or spiraling out of control.
Japan to Become New Geopolitical Rival
With the deepening rightist trends in Japanese society, the increase of its strategic doubts over China and the implementation of new security bills, Japan has quickly changed its posture on the South China Sea issue and rushed to the front stage from behind the scenes. The reason is that Japan is worried that China would adopt similar practices in the waters of the Diaoyu Islands (Senkaku Islands) as it has done to other countries’ infringements of its rights in the South China Sea.
Therefore, Japan is following the US’ lead to contain China via the arbitration case — which is entirely in line with Japanese interests. Militarily, Japan appears poised to take advantage of the US’ invitation and, in conjunction with the validation of its new security bills, is gradually expanding its military presence in the South China Sea.
Specific means may include military cooperation and assistance, use of foreign countries’ military bases, joint exercises, etc. It is very likely that Japan will use the South China Sea as a testing ground for the exercise of its collective self-defense right, and become a new pioneer of the South China Sea’s “militarization.”
New Challenges to China-ASEAN Relations
ASEAN’s diplomatic strategy — characterized by its “balance between major countries” approach — will be challenged because of the different positions held by different ASEAN members towards the ruling. The South China Sea dispute is not an issue between China and ASEAN, nor should it be an issue for China-ASEAN relations.
However, since the establishment of the ASEAN community, some ASEAN members have wanted to use the South China Sea issue to hijack the rest of the ASEAN grouping. Meanwhile, the US and Japan have implemented a wedge strategy towards ASEAN. As a result, it seems that ASEAN’s attitude toward China regarding the South China Sea issue has undergone a subtle change, moving back and forth and towards a pro-US tendency.
ASEAN countries are China’s important neighbors, and the China-ASEAN relationship is one of the most important periphery relationships for China. For a long time, China has attached great importance to its relations with ASEAN and has supported ASEAN’s integration process. The independent and neutral foreign policy pursued by ASEAN is also in line with China’s own interests.
However, if ASEAN takes side between China and US with regards to the ruling, it will undoubtedly put undue strain on China-ASEAN relations.
Uncertainty in China-Philippines Relations
The China-Philippine relationship has been severely damaged owing to the arbitration procedure unilaterally initiated by the Philippines. There has been some expectation of improvement after Benigno Aquino III left office. However, where China-Philippine relations will go still depends on whether the Rodrigo Duterte administration would use the arbitration ruling to further challenge China’s sovereignty and maritime rights, or choose to return to the negotiating table.
For other claimant countries such as Vietnam, the ruling may be a double-edged sword. If they believe that the ruling is in favor of them, these countries may take bolder and riskier actions to challenge China’s sovereignty or sovereign rights, in which case China would not sit idle. If a maritime conflict happens, negative impact on bilateral relations between China and related countries is foreseeable. In this sense, the ruling may be “a bad thing” rather than “a good thing” for those countries that want to take “advantage” of it.
Consultation on COC to Be Affected
Disputing parties and stakeholders may adjust their demands and objectives because the distribution of interests will shift as a result of the ruling. More specifically, the ruling will exert a negative influence on the ongoing consultation on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) between China and the ASEAN countries.
Some countries may make use of the award, which they believe is in their favor, to maximize their interests. They will either propose objections to parts where consensus has been reached, or delay the COC consultation process by raising new issues. In this sense, sudden changes will occur with regard to the development of the region’s security structure as well as its crisis management and control regime.
In sum, the ruling can neither deny China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea, nor weaken the determination and will of the Chinese government and people to safeguard their territorial sovereignty. China’s non-implementation of the illegal and invalid ruling — which has no binding force on China — is nothing but the exercise of its right as empowered by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to State Parties, as well as the necessary measure to maintain the Convention’s authority and seriousness.
Although it will take a long time before solutions to the South China Sea dispute can be found, the ultimate way forward is still negotiation, consultation, and joint development.