Time to act responsibly, amicably

July 14, 2016 - 09:00

The Hague’s Arbitral Tribunal on Tuesday finally rendered its long-awaited landmark ruling on the case of the Philippines versus China over claims to the East Sea (South China Sea). 

Chi Lan
Viet Nam News

by Chi Lan

The Hague’s Arbitral Tribunal on Tuesday finally rendered its long-awaited landmark ruling on the case of the Philippines versus China over claims to the East Sea (South China Sea). The result came after three years filled with complicated procedures, international clapping, bitter objections and ballyhooed exchanges of words.

As the historic decision day approached, analysts and legal experts expected a ruling favourable to the Philippines following two hearings and some 4,000 pages of evidence submitted to the tribunal, yet how the ruling was delivered turned out to be unexpected.

In an interview with Việt Nam News right after the ruling was announced, Dr Markus Gehring, deputy director of the University of Cambridge’s Centre for European Legal Studies, admitted he was a “little bit surprised at the clear, decisive language of the tribunal ruling”, which hardly left “any room for doubt” on what the panel truly meant in its decision, or how to interpret the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Such legal interpretations were heretofore drawn arbitrarily with China’s so-called ‘nine-dash line’ as the quintessential example, which was problematic to a great extent.

The Arbitral Tribunal rejected loud and clear Beijing’s "historic rights" to resources within the sea area in the ‘nine-dash line’ and declared that none of the features in the Spratly Islands (Trường Sa) claimed by the northern powerhouse were capable of generating an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles as an individual feature nor as a collective unit.

It strongly stated that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its EEZ and caused irreparable harm to the marine environment through land reclamation while at the same time, letting Chinese fishermen harvest endangered sea species on a substantial scale without actions to stop such activities.

The Tribunal also concluded that Beijing’s in toto actions in the East Sea were “incompatible with the obligations on a State during dispute resolution proceedings”, a final blow to China’s oft-said declarations that it aimed to solve disputes by peaceful settlements in accordance with international law.

The ruling was hailed as landmark for a reason. It was the first time an international ruling, which is legally binding without chance for appeal, was clearly announced on the disputed East Sea.

The "nine-dash" line claimed by China is not valid.

East Sea claimants and the world fully understand that sovereignty issues extend beyond the reach of the July 12 ruling. Yet, it was no doubt a light at the end of the tunnel, offering bona fide hope that a peaceful solution settled by international law and norms is possible, and not just an empty promise on the tip of diplomats’ tongues.

While most concerned parties have welcomed the ruling, China’s reaction is writing on the wall for more troubles ahead.

Hours after the ruling, Chinese President Xi Jinping told European Union leaders attending the Asia-Europe Summit in Beijing that China would not “accept any positions or actions based on the outcome of an international tribunal’s arbitration”, once again repeating its tribunal-slammed claim to "historic rights” that were purportedly established in ancient times.

Yesterday, China released its White Book against the tribunal’s ruling and declared it reserved the right to set up an air defence zone in the East Sea, one day after the Beijing Public Emergency Response Committee ordered all agencies to make preparations under “wartime status”, according to the Hong Kong-based Oriental Daily online newspaper.

The Philippines’ Embassy in Beijing, meanwhile, advised its citizens in China to refrain from engaging in any political talks regarding the issue, a cautious move learnt by the Southeast nation after attacks against Japanese broke out in 2012 when Japan nationalised the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

Dr Gehring believes it would be “domestically difficult for China to change its position” on the East Sea after the ruling. In the short-term, it is expected that Beijing will stay put with its sovereignty stance, partly because of pressure from the inside and nationalistic sentiment.

The National Border Committee’s former chief, Trần Công Trục, agreed that nationalism was and will be a strong force, nurtured by decades of education and territorial declarations by the Chinese government. At least in the immediate future, this sentiment will challenge any possible changes to Beijing’s stance on handling territorial integrity and sovereignty issues, Trục said.

Refusing to abide by the unanimous ruling would cost China, as a signatory to UNCLOS, the fragile credibility of a peaceful rising power in Asia and the world over. Furthermore, China is also a member of the United Nations Security Council and is thus tasked with holding other countries accountable and insisting that they comply with the rule of law.

Trục believes that any negative reactions by China in the aftermath of the ruling would also pull down its ambitious mega-project ‘One Belt, One Road’ because the countries China has been trying to seduce into the project may become “suspicious of Beijing’s real intentions of the project, as it has said one thing but done another”.

It took centuries for nations that had gone through brutal wars and sacrificed so much blood to reach agreements, establishing institutions and laws, such as the UN and UNCLOS, to end a state of lawlessness, of course with certain compromises regarding their raison d’État.

After The Hague Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling, it is natural that some parties are happy, some welcome with reservations and others are unhappy. I believe it is high time nations started considering responsible actions with good will to promote peaceful resolutions to the East Sea issue and avoid plunging the region back into a state of lawlessness.

It will take cool-headed negotiations, diplomatic talks and other peaceful means to settle the East Sea dispute for the sake of all claimants involved, not excluding China. – VNS