Nobody really knows how the South China Sea sovereignty issue will be sorted out. It featured in one way or the other at the recent ASEAN meeting and the follow-up East Asia summit in Laos.
So far, China is resolute about its sovereignty claims regarding islands/islets/rocks scattered about the waters. Indeed, it has dredged out new ones and has justified building airfields and other military structures as security measures to defend its sovereignty.
Beijing has flatly rejected the recent ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, that favored the Philippines, which had sought the court’s arbitration on China’s construction of military structures on Mischief Reef (Meiji Reef, 美濟礁) in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), to which Taiwan, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia have claims over all or some of the features.
In a sweeping judgement on China’s sovereignty claims, the court rejected Beijing’s “nine-dash line,” which tends to turn almost all of the South China Sea into its exclusive territory.
An adverse finding from court was expected, but not with such vehemence.
“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,’” the court’s finding said.
It also found that the artificial islands that China has been building did not create exclusive economic zones, as they cannot naturally sustain human habitation. It declared that “certain sea areas [that China has claimed] are within the exclusive economic zone” of the rival claimant, the Philippines.
Worse still, the tribunal found that “China 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.”
Not surprisingly, and considering that China boycotted the tribunal, Beijing said that the court’s ruling “is null and void and has no binding force.”
Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) said the ruling has placed the South China Sea “in a dangerous situation of intensifying tension and confrontation.”
He called the unilaterally initiated case and the resulting ruling a “sheer political farce in the disguise of law,” adding that: “The attempts of any power to harm or deny China’s sovereignty and maritime interests in any form will be futile.”
To this end, China is not averse to showing its military muscle by making it clear that it would employ all necessary measures it deems necessary to protect its sovereignty in the South China Sea. China has been holding military exercises, and reportedly even cut off outside access to parts of the South China Sea to host these exercises.
It has also conducted combat air patrols in the region, which are slated to become a “regular” occurrence, according to state-run Xinhua news agency. In other words, Beijing is steadfast in its position and is leaving no doubt that it means what it says.
China’s regional neighbors, at odds with Beijing over the sovereignty issue, are reluctant to put up a united front. For Instance, ASEAN has not been able to put up a joint front on this issue, as it looks to China for trade and investment. Besides, China is politically and militarily powerful.