Sunday marked the fourth anniversary of a landmark ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in favor of the Philippines and against China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea.
To coincide with the anniversary, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday issued a statement unequivocally rejecting China’s claims.
“Beijing has offered no coherent legal basis for its ‘nine-dashed line’ claim in the South China Sea since formally announcing it in 2009,” he said, adding that the tribunal’s decision was “final and legally binding on both parties.”
China’s “nine-dashed line” claim is based upon a historical document which predates the founding of the People’s Republic of China and claims approximately 90 percent of the sea as China’s sovereign waters.
Pompeo’s statement marks a subtle, but significant shift in Washington’s policy — prior to Monday’s statement, the US had refrained from endorsing the substance of the court’s decision, which said that China was entitled, under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, to a 12-nautical-mile (22.2km) exclusive economic zone extending from China’s southern coast, in addition to any islands — but not rocks or reefs — under its control.
Outside of these areas, the nearest coastal state has sovereignty, and it is therefore illegal for China to engage in fishing, oil and gas exploration, or other activities in those areas.
While Pompeo’s statement is welcome, what, if anything, can Washington and its allies realistically do to enforce the law, and contain China’s maritime expansion?
The short answer is: not much. After the ruling was announced, Beijing dismissed it as “invalid.” In the new world of Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomacy, dialogue is unlikely to have any effect.
On a tactical level, the US and its regional allies have been thoroughly outmaneuvered, while Beijing is using its tried-and-tested salami slicing method: slicing away at international norms through a series of small, incremental steps that, as such, might not face much scrutiny, but which cumulatively alter the “status quo” in favor of China.
Once the world wakes up to the reality of the situation, it might be too late to do anything about it. This is how Beijing built up its possessions in the South China Sea.
Beginning in late 2013, it has carried out land reclamation and construction on reefs in the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島) and Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島) to, as the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs puts it, “improve the working and living conditions of people stationed on these islands.”
When radar and other military equipment was spotted on the artificial islands, Beijing said they were to help maritime search and rescue efforts, as well as climate research and weather observation.
When missile batteries appeared on the islands, criticism was brushed off as the equipment was “purely defensive,” and in 2018, when a bomber landed on Woody Island (Yongxing Island, 永興島) in the Paracels, this was “pilot training,” the ministry said.
China’s “great wall of sand” is now bristling with military equipment, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, radar, runways, docks and bunkers, and no US freedom of navigation exercises or reconnaissance flights can turn back the tide. Meanwhile, China continues to churn out new naval ships, destabilizing the balance of power in the region.
There is no easy solution to contain China’s maritime expansion. Taiwan has to accept much higher spending on its navy and coast guard, and it must try to forge closer military ties with its neighbors, the US and Washington’s allies to develop a robust deterrent force. At this point, there are few good options left.
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