Last week the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCOA), a panel of five legal scholars established by The Hague Peace Conference, ruled in favor of the Philippines in a challenge it filed in 2013 against China’s claim to sovereignty over much of the South China Sea. The ruling was immediately hailed by many Western countries, including the US, as a total repudiation of China’s Nine Dash Line (NDL), which China regards as demarcating its sovereign territory.
The Philippines’ claim was based on the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which China is a signatory. UNCLOS grants all countries territorial borders of 12 nautical miles extending from their shoreline to the open ocean. It further grants Exclusive Economic Zones for an additional 200 miles.
The Western media has largely reported on the challenge and the ruling as if it were so cut and dry as to deny any room for interpretation and condemning China for refusing to recognize or accept the result. The European Union threw its support behind this position at a summit over the weekend.
Very few Western media outlets, however, have even attempted to explain the logic behind China’s position. It’s actually pretty simple. China argues that the PCOA has authority over maritime economic disputes, but the issue of the NDL is an issue of sovereignty, not maritime commerce. The PCOA, as a result, has no authority in the matter and any dispute between the parties should be resolved through good faith negotiations between the two countries.
I am certainly no expert in maritime disputes or questions of national sovereignty. As a writer, however, I do know that words are imprecise at best. They are a tool for improving the efficiency of communication but always open to interpretation.
Does China have a valid point? Well, its argument seems to make some sense but I’m not the one to say who is right and who is wrong in this dispute.
I do think that the PCOA did not help establish its legitimacy by criticizing the environmental impact of China’s island building. Environmental oversight is clearly not within its charter and China is surely not the only country to reclaim shoals and reefs. (Virtually all of Holland and much of New Orleans should, if left to nature, be underwater.)
As I have noted before, most importantly, I don’t see how China’s leadership can possibly back down at this point. By insisting that this is a black and white dispute, therefore, the West is not helping to settle the dispute; it is only backing China into a corner. It’s hard for me to see how that will contribute to peace and stability in the region.
Over the weekend, in fact, China announced that it will conduct military exercises off the coast of Hainan Island, which no one disputes China’s sovereignty over, and that the area will be closed to all naval and aviation traffic from Tuesday until Thursday.
The US response is yet to be known. If the US sails warships through the area, or spy planes over it, all in the name of maintaining free navigation for the little guys who can’t stand up to China, things could escalate fast. China is no longer afraid of the US.
And nothing would change.
Of one thing I am sure. If the West believes that this ruling will cause the Chinese people to pressure their government to back down, that’s simply not going to happen. If anything the ruling may cause people to pressure the government to act more decisively in defending its claim, as it has now begun to do.
That can’t be good for global relations at a time when the world is already a mess. The West needs to bring China into the global fold, not isolate it or alienate its people.
China has already signaled its willingness to open a dialogue with the Philippines. Why not let them try?
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