US must stay off South China Sea dispute; claimants can negotiate quietly

In the next few weeks, an international arbitration ruling would be delivered on China’s claims to almost all of the South China Sea, the disputed territories in one of the world’s busiest waterways. But that ruling may be insignificant, and will not be the panacea to the century old dispute.

It’s squarely a tussle between China and the Philippines, which is in court at The Hague. Others in the dispute are Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan; and yet as usual, the so-called bullish super power, the United States of America, appears to be on the usual tangent of poking its nose into affairs that do not concern it.

Even in this scenario, if the US was urging a rather peaceful bilateral negotiation and appearing to be fair, one could have applauded it. However, it appears to have taken a stance against China, while supporting the Philippines and the other nations quietly.

This clearly does not augur well for a harmonious negotiation of the century old dispute that could escalate into dreaded consequences if not delicately handled.

The US’ position is certainly a prejudiced position that can never help in addressing conflicts, particularly one such as a maritime dispute of this magnitude.

If the US really cares about settling real conflicts to promote global peace, they should probably turn attention to Syria and other war-torn countries by dispatching warships there.

One wonders what the US interest really is in this matter, and what it stands to gain should the Philippines in particular emerge the conqueror at the end of it – a situation China will resist at all cost.

Speaking at a recent special briefing on the dispute, Ouyang Yujing, Director-General of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs, said China is willing to take into consideration constructive comments and criticism from other countries.

“But if they are aimed at putting pressure on China or blackening its name, then you can view it like a spring, which has an applied force and a counterforce. The more the pressure, the greater the reaction,” he said.

Maritime trade

Each year, more than $5 trillion in maritime trade passes through the South China Sea’s energy-rich waters. China claims almost all of the sea to be historically part of its territory and in recent years, has been aggressively creating artificial islands there to bolster its position, including the building of airstrips. But the waterway is also crisscrossed by claims from the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan.

Beijing has long insisted that the disputes be handled through bilateral negotiations between claimants and argued against any international involvement, but its actions have been an increasing source of tension in the region and beyond.

Last month, the Group of Seven (G-7) advanced economies issued a statement supporting arbitration, voicing their “strong opposition to any intimidating coercive or provocative unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions.”

China has said the disputes are being exaggerated. At the same time, it has been stepping up its rhetoric ahead of an international ruling on its claims in a case that the Philippines lodged against Beijing in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The ruling is expected in the coming weeks and is likely to favour the Philippines.

Sovereignty ruling

China has said that since the case is about sovereignty and maritime delineation, the court has no right to hear the case. China has repeatedly noted that the Philippines has been “illegally occupying” Chinese islands from the 1960s.

China will reject the ruling

Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said she expects China to reject the ruling.

“It is also stepping up efforts to prepare the public by justifying China’s position. At the same time, the Chinese foreign ministry is lobbying countries to support its position and seeking to expand the numbers that are on its side,” she said.

Analysts say China, which has emerged as one of the world’s biggest investors, is offering a combination of incentives and threats to enlist the support of different countries.

Beijing wants to avoid a loss of face because the U.N. tribunal is expected to support Manila’s claims on the disputed islands. It is also concerned that other claimants may follow in the Philippines footsteps.

But analysts are divided over whether China, with its massive economic clout, would be able to force at least some western countries to change their stance and back it in opposing the Philippine’s case.

US backs Philippines

The U.S, which has criticized Chinese construction and creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea, is perceived to be backing Manila.

“I think the U.K., Australia, and other Western countries are willing to stand firm on their principles on this matter. I am doubtful they will back China or even remain silent,” Glaser said, adding that “China needs the U.K., Australia and other nations just as much as they need China.”

And while China has hoped that the Philippines would drop the case, it is unlikely that the situation there will change much as well. The Philippines has elected a new President and most of the candidates in the polls have taken a staunch view against China.

But with the new President yet to be sworn in, it is expected that China will make an attempt at bilateral negotiations again over the disputed area. It remains to be seen whether the Sino-Philippine relations would deepen or weaken in the coming months.

South China Sea dispute

Rival countries have wrangled over territory in the South China Sea for centuries, but tension has steadily increased in recent years.

China has backed its expansive claims with island-building and naval patrols, while the US says it opposes restrictions on freedom of navigation and unlawful sovereignty claims – by all sides, but seen by many as aimed at China.

The frictions have sparked concern that the area is becoming a flashpoint with global consequences.

What is the argument about?

It is a dispute over territory and sovereignty over ocean areas, and the Paracels and the Spratlys – two island chains claimed in whole or in part by a number of countries.

Alongside the fully fledged islands, there are dozens of rocky outcrops, atolls, sandbanks and reefs, such as the Scarborough Shoal.

Why are they worth arguing over?

Although largely uninhabited, the Paracels and the Spratlys may have reserves of natural resources around them. There has been little detailed exploration of the area, so estimates are largely extrapolated from the mineral wealth of neighbouring areas.

The sea is also a major shipping route and home to fishing grounds that supply the livelihoods of people across the region.

Who claims what?

China claims by far the largest portion of territory – an area defined by the “nine-dash line” which stretches hundreds of miles south and east from its most southerly province of Hainan.
Beijing says its right to the area goes back centuries to when the Paracel and Spratly island chains were regarded as integral parts of the Chinese nation, and in 1947 it issued a map detailing its claims. It showed the two island groups falling entirely within its territory. Those claims are mirrored by Taiwan.

Vietnam hotly disputes China’s historical account, saying China had never claimed sovereignty over the islands before the 1940s. Vietnam says it has actively ruled over both the Paracels and the Spratlys since the 17th Century – and has the documents to prove it.

The other major claimant in the area is the Philippines, which invokes its geographical proximity to the Spratly Islands as the main basis of its claim for part of the grouping.

Both the Philippines and China lay claim to the Scarborough Shoal (known as Huangyan Island in China) – a little more than 100 miles (160km) from the Philippines and 500 miles from China.

Malaysia and Brunei also lay claim to territory in the South China Sea that they say falls within their economic exclusion zones, as defined by UNCLOS – the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Brunei does not claim any of the disputed islands, but Malaysia claims a small number of islands in the Spratlys.

Recent flashpoints

The most serious trouble in recent decades has flared between Vietnam and China, and there have also been stand-offs between the Philippines and China:

• In 1974 the Chinese seized the Paracels from Vietnam, killing more than 70 Vietnamese troops.
• In 1988 the two sides clashed in the Spratlys, with Vietnam again coming off worse, losing about 60 sailors.
• In early 2012, China and the Philippines engaged in a lengthy maritime stand-off, accusing each other of intrusions in the Scarborough Shoal.
• In July 2012 China angered Vietnam and the Philippines when it formally created Sansha city, an administrative body with its headquarters in the Paracels which it says oversees Chinese territory in the South China Sea.
• Unverified claims that the Chinese navy sabotaged two Vietnamese exploration operations in late 2012 led to large anti-China protests on Vietnam’s streets.
• In January 2013, Manila said it was taking China to a UN tribunal under the auspices of the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea, to challenge its claims.
• In May 2014, the introduction by China of a drilling rig into waters near the Paracel Islands led to multiple collisions between Vietnamese and Chinese ships.
• In April 2015, satellite images showed China building an airstrip on reclaimed land in the Spratlys.
• In October 2015, the US sailed a guided-missile destroyer within 12-nautical miles of the artificial islands – the first in a series of actions planned to assert freedom of navigation in the region. China warned that the US should “not act blindly or make trouble out of nothing”.

What does the rest of the world say?

Although China has tended to favour bilateral negotiations behind closed doors, other countries want international mediation. But even if the Philippines is successful in its attempts to pursue China at a UN tribunal, China would not be obliged to abide by the ruling.

Recent attempts by regional grouping Asean to discuss new ideas for resolving the dispute appear to have left the bloc severely divided.

The US has warned China not to “elbow aside” the countries it is in conflict with over the islands.

From the foregoing, it is imperative therefore, that the US back off and allow peace to prevail.

By: Timothy Gobah