An international tribunal in The Hague ruled this week that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea are unfounded. We spoke to Carl Thayer, defence analyst at the University of New South Wales, for an insight into Beijing’s next move
A long-standing dispute in the South China Sea reached a new chapter this week when an international tribunal in The Hague ruled against China’s territorial claims in the area in a case brought by the Philippines.
China’s so-called “nine-dash line”, a demarcation based on purported historical fishing grounds that lays claim to 90% of the South China Sea, has drawn the ire of countries that claim overlapping territory under international law, including Vietnam, Indonesia, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Other nations in the region, including Cambodia and Laos, have sided with China, but Asean, however, reportedly does not make a public comment on the ruling.
Meanwhile, as China undertakes island-building projects and coastguard patrols in the sea, the US has been also intensifying its military presence in the region and lending diplomatic support to its traditional ally, the Philippines. The area has been called a flashpoint for a ‘new Cold War’, in which the US and China are waging a geopolitical proxy struggle with Southeast Asia stuck in the middle.
While Manila has hailed the decision as a “crowning glory”, Beijing has stated that it does not recognise the court’s ruling. Regardless, the news is likely to roil tensions in the region.
In your opinion, what do you think Beijing will end up doing?
Well they’re hosting a G20 summit later in the year, and the last thing they want is to have that summit be turned into an all-in brawl over the South China Sea. So they’ll continue, I think, with very heavy-handed political and diplomatic verbiage. They can play the long waiting game, and anything they do in the South China Sea will play with our minds, like threatening to set up an air defence identification zone, which they can’t enforce. But further consolidating, they keep turning on lighthouses in the region.
I think they’ll just flood the area with more civilian infrastructure, tourist flights, whatever, to demonstrate that they’re in control and there’s nothing anybody else can do. They’ll use their coastguard and maritime militia to be at the cutting edge. China has enlisted a number of friends all around the world to say they were backing China on this. And they’ll play that game and step up civilian consolidation, but not military presence. That’s because of the US carriers, the destroyers, the ground attack aircraft left in the Philippines and the Growler, the electronic warfare aircraft that are there. It’s all a pretty potent deterrent for China.
If they’re not going to step up their military presence in the region, how much do you think the decision will actually raise tensions in the South China Sea?
Well, they’re going to raise tensions if anybody wants to actually enforce the ruling. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is not just a convention for the South China Sea, it’s called the ‘constitution for the world’s oceans’. Unfortunately, the United States hasn’t ratified it and that’s an issue. But any other country – Japan, Korea, Australia – who has signed it has better standing to try and push for its implementation. China just sees the US as hypocritical. It can do what it wants and then tells China to obey the law when it hasn’t signed it itself.
I think the ruling is going to raise the heat of rhetoric in the region. Anybody trying to challenge China’s physical control at the moment is likely to get a reaction. But the Chinese military has taken a step further back in the last 18 months, and it’s mainly the coastguard that’s carrying the brunt.
China does not want to provoke a military confrontation. It’s on the losing side in that one. The US has a preponderance of strength there. We don’t even want to conceive of what could occur, because they would immediately try to control an incident and not let it escalate. For China, the long game is to keep maintaining their presence, keep asserting it, keep building on it – but not yet militarising.
If China continues to amp up rhetoric – and it’s said it won’t honour the decision – does this nullify, or at least weaken, the power of international arbitration?
Oh, it certainly does – there’s no question. Because the UN convention says this law has to be applied immediately and is not subject to appeal. But there’s no enforcement.
One mechanism would be to go to the UN security council. But China is a member of the security council and would reject it immediately. We find that there’s no effective avenues other than through multilateral institutions that continue to put pressure on China, such as the East Asia Summit and the G20 summit.
Carlyle A. Thayer is an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra.