China’s reclamation work was condemned for causing severe environmental harm. Source: YouTube
The uneasy stalemate between China and most of the global community over the South China Sea could be broken open by this week’s UN’s international tribunal ruling.
China lost the legal case over reefs and atolls that it has already occupied in the South China Sea.
The judgement by the international UN tribunal in The Hague was overwhelmingly in favour of claims by the Philippines and will increase diplomatic pressure on Beijing to withdraw its military from the sensitive area.
By depriving many rocky outcrops, many of which are only revealed at low tide, of “territorial-generating status”, the tribunal undermined Beijing’s extensive “nine-dash” demarcation line that loops around the South China Sea, almost touching the coasts of Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. The ruling declares large areas of the sea to be neutral international waters.
The court ruled that “although Chinese navigators and fishermen, as well as those of 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”.
From a slightly wider, historical perspective, all rising powers have behaved like this, although most of them were lucky enough to have been extending their influence before the days of UN tribunals.
The Hague tribunal would have been unlikely to uphold 19th-century Britain’s claims to Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus, Suez and by extension Egypt and Sudan, as a means to facilitate the journey to India. Washington still would not tolerate any other great power interfering too close to the Americas but the Chinese grip on the South China Sea is being extended during the era of international tribunals and rolling news coverage.
“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’.”
Predictably, China’s state-controlled media rejected the verdict with Xinhua saying it was “ill-founded” and “naturally null and void”.
China’s defence ministry said it was “unswervingly safeguard state sovereignty, security, maritime rights and interests”.
Quite what the Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte, will make of the unambiguous verdict is anyone’s guess.
He is currently preoccupied with the state-sponsored murder of drug dealers and addicts and has only been in the job for a matter of days.
While his predecessor, Benigno Aquino, took the bold step of taking China to The Hague and bolstered military ties with the US, Duterte has sent out conflicting messages about the Chinese seizure of Philippine atolls.
On the campaign trail, he said he would ride on a jet ski to plant the national flag on the Scarborough Shoal and challenge the Chinese to martyr him.
On other occasions he has offered to relinquish Manila’s claims in exchange for some high-speed Chinese train routes.
The tribunal ruled on the Spratly Islands, which are the most distant from China and on which it has the most tenuous claim, that it was not “capable of generating extended maritime zones … [and] having found that none of the features claimed by China was capable of generating an exclusive economic zone, the tribunal found that it could, without delimiting a boundary, declare that certain sea areas are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, because those areas are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China”.
It ruled that China had violated Manila’s sovereignty by interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration, constructing artificial islands and failing to exclude its fishing vessels from the region.
“The tribunal also held that fishermen from the Philippines had traditional fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal and that China had interfered with these rights in restricting access. The tribunal further held that Chinese law enforcement vessels had unlawfully created a serious risk of collision when they physically obstructed Philippine vessels.”
The tribunal condemned land reclamation and construction of artificial islands at seven Spratly sites, saying it had caused “severe harm to the coral reef environment and violated its obligation to preserve and protect fragile ecosystems and the habitat of depleted, threatened or endangered species”.
In 2015 the US claimed China had built an extra 800 hectares on their occupied outposts across the South China Sea over the preceding 18 months.
China’s expansion caused “irreparable harm to the marine environment” by building a “large artificial island in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone”, and destroying “evidence of the natural condition of features in the South China Sea that formed part of the parties’ dispute”.
As ever, Beijing is more preoccupied with its domestic environment, which is constantly under pressure from the nation’s breakneck industrialisation, and the increasing energy demands of its 1.36 billion citizens.
Lurking behind Beijing’s claim to around 90 per cent of the sea is a wealth of untapped oil and gas reserves below the waters.
Beijing has won the unlikely support of Russia, Saudi Arabia, the landlocked African states of Niger and Lesotho, Palestine, Afghanistan and Togo. Vanuatu, with a population below 300,000, also supports China.
It is an awkward alliance that faces volatile Duterte, now backed by such an unambiguous international ruling. Watch this space.