The Hague Tribunal ruling will not change the geo-strategic equations in the South China Sea (SCS). On the contrary, it may heighten tensions, uncertainty and mistrust in the centuries’ old conflict that has left a scar in China’s psyche.
Recall how Western powers carved up China like a melon during the Qing Dynasty. The memory of a hundred years of humiliation at the hands of major colonial powers is permanently etched in stone.
Until 2000, unlike Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, China had no military posts; it built its first runway in the Spratlys only in 2013. China has become more assertive, building facilities and infrastructure for civilian and military use only in the last five years.
The litmus test for the ruling is how rival parties conduct themselves in the Spratlys in the coming weeks.
Will be there be more or less tension in the Spratlys? Will China build structures in the Scarborough shoal, over which Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has appealed for calm? How will Taiwan react to the ruling that Itu Aba is a rock, hence not entitled to an exclusive economic zone?
Will Taiwan rally around China in the SCS dispute? Will China interfere with US vessels exercising the right of innocent passage prejudicial to its peace and security?
Will China further militarise the area within the nine-dash-line over which the tribunal has ruled it has no historic right to resources and whose reclamation activities have caused grave damage to the marine environment?
Incidentally, the tribunal did not say the nine-dash-line is illegal.
As expected, the tribunal also ruled the features that China claims in the Spratlys are not entitled to a 200-mile exclusive economic (EEZ) zone or a 12-mile territorial sea. Without delimiting the boundaries, the tribunal found China has violated, “the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its EEZ”. Quite an astonishing finding.
The US is the biggest headache for China in the SCS. With its superior sea-power capabilities, the US has been mobilising its friends and allies to contain China’ rise.
China’s decision to ignore the tribunal’s ruling has a strong geo-political rationale: to prevent rival powers from exploiting its weaknesses at sea.
In March, for example, the US sent a naval armada (USS John Stennis and sister ships) to the Paracels after Beijing deployed a battery of anti-ship cruise missiles on Woody Island.
The way forward is to expedite the process of establishing a Spratlys Forum for navies and other enforcement bodies from the claimant states to talk to each other 24/7.
The discussion on this bottom-up crisis management process is two years old and it has gained traction at the official level. The last meeting was held in May in Cebu, Philippines.
To keep the peace in the SCS, rival powers must chip in to defuse tension. America, which has spurned the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea (Unclos) and rulings of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) (Nicaragua Case, (1986), Avena (Mexico v. US, 2004); LaGrand (FRG v. US, 1999), can play a positive role by suspending its Freedom of Navigation programme in the SCS.
Likewise, Japan, which insists that China abide by the ruling, should take a hard look at itself. Tokyo is no saint; it defies the ICJ ruling over its whaling activities (2014) and its decision to give a rock (Okinotorishima) an exclusive economic zone is very controversial.
While China’s perception of its historic rights in the Spratlys will not change, Beijing which holds the trump card, must not overreact. Beijing must hold fire under all circumstances.
B. A. Hamzah is a student of regional geopolitics and commentator on