Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea is putting Europe’s economic interests in the area at risk. More than one third of Europe’s external trade takes place with the Indo-Pacific region and any escalation of tensions in this area will undoubtedly have a direct impact on Europe.
Russia’s policies regarding the South China Sea (SCS) dispute are more complex than they might seem. Moscow’s official position presents Russia as an extra-regional actor with no stakes in the dispute. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, Russia “had never been a participant of the South China Sea disputes” and considers it “a matter of principle not to side with any party.” However, behind the façade of formal disengagement are Russia’s military build-up in the Asia-Pacific region, and the multi-billion dollar arms and energy deals with the rival claimants. These factors reveal that even though Moscow may not have direct territorial claims in the SCS, it has strategic goals, interests, and actions that have direct bearing on how the SCS dispute evolves.
One-fourth of Russia’s massive military modernization program through 2020 is designated for the Pacific Fleet, headquartered in Vladivostok, to make it better equipped for extended operations in distant seas. Russia’s military cooperation with China has progressed to the point that President Putin called China Russia’s “natural partner and natural ally.” The two countries’ most recent joint naval exercise – “Joint Sea 2016” – took place in the SCS, and became the first exercise of its kind involving China and a second country in the disputed SCS after the Hague-based tribunal ruling on China’s “nine-dash line” territorial claims. However, Russia’s relations with Vietnam are displaying a similar upward trend: Russia-Vietnam relations have been upgraded to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” comparable to the Russia-China relationship. Russia and Vietnam are developing joint gas projects in the SCS, and Moscow also is trying to return to the Cam Ranh naval base and selling Hanoi advanced weapon systems that enhance Vietnam’s defense capabilities.
The Regional Security Outlook 2017, prepared by the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP) and available at www.cscap.org, conveys an unmistakable sense of despondency. The Outlook includes a cluster of assessments by regional analysts of the security picture across the region as a whole and two smaller clusters focusing on what CSCAP deems the most acute challenges to stability and order in the region – North Korea’s nuclear weapon program and the dispute in the South China Sea.
The RSO 2017 contends that both principal actors – the US and China – believe themselves to be too wise and wily to stumble into a replay of the Sparta-Athens drama of 2,500 years ago but now stand exposed as capable of exactly that. Geopolitical contest, so stoutly denied over a number of years, intensified markedly, and was at last more openly acknowledged. We can, and should, take some reassurance from the fact that the tilt in the balance of power and influence in Asia is likely to be neither quick nor decisive. Although the drift of the US-China relationship toward difficulty and coolness inescapably heightens the risk of inadvertent incidents, neither side has any interest in conflict.
This article was originally published by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) on 18 July 2016
The recent arbitration tribunal’s ruling on the Philippines’ case against China represents a milestone both in international law and in the politics of the South China Sea. In a sweeping, magisterial, and unequivocal decision, the tribunal has moved the goalposts, changed the channel, and put China on the defensive. From this point forward the main question will not be who owns what in the South China Sea, but who does or does not respect international law. China has rejected the decision in the strongest possible terms, with evident (and no doubt heartfelt) emotion. Whether China sticks to that script or ultimately decides that the costs of noncompliance outweigh the benefits is, of course, the $64,000 question. We will have to wait and see. Meanwhile, though, here are key some things about the decision that you may not have noticed:
When it comes to maritime rights, UNCLOS trumps all. The tribunal has made clear that other state-to-state agreements or principles of customary international law can confer maritime rights, but only if they are consistent with UNCLOS principles.Put another way: if you want to be seen to be playing by the rules, you have to be seen to be playing by UNCLOS rules.
Today an arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague issued a long-awaited ruling in Manila’s case against Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea. The five-judge tribunal was established under the compulsory dispute settlement provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and despite China’s refusal to participate in the proceedings, its ruling is final and legally binding. For a closer look at the tribunal’s ruling and the areas it leaves legally disputed in the South China Sea, visit the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative’s new interactive map.
Q1: What did the tribunal rule?
The judges issued a unanimous decision in favor of the Philippines on the overwhelming majority of the claims it made against China. They invalidated Beijing’s claims to ill-defined historic rights throughout the nine-dash line, finding that any claims it makes in the South China Sea must be made based on maritime entitlements from land features. The tribunal ruled that any other historic rights China might once have claimed in what are now the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) or continental shelves of other countries were invalidated by its ratification of UNCLOS. On the question of specific maritime entitlements over disputed features, the court found that Scarborough Shoal is a rock entitled only to a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea. The judges cannot rule on sovereignty over that shoal, but ruled that China has violated the traditional fishing rights of Filipinos by not allowing them to fish at the shoal. Notably the tribunal said it would have found the same regarding Chinese fishermen if they were prevented access to the shoal by the Philippines.