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US experts weigh in on after-effects of Tribunal ruling vs China

/ 12:07 AM July 14, 2016

NEW YORK – Experts on US-China relations from Asia Society weighed in  on Tuesday’s ruling by the international tribunal in The Hague that Beijing’s maritime claims had no basis in international law.

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Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations

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The ruling just handed down by the Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration in response to the complaint made by the Philippines after the seizure of Scarborough Shoal by the PRC in 2012 now looks destined to radically alter not only China’s interaction with its Asian neighbors, but with the U.S. as well. Because the ruling so undermines China’s claims in the South China Sea region, Beijing finds itself at a critical juncture point: It can either adjust course and seek accommodation with various claimants in these maritime disputes that have put it at odds with not only the Philippines, but with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and now even Indonesia, or it can double down and become even more obdurate.

What mitigates against the likelihood that Beijing will become less obdurate and more flexible in its approach to the South China Sea is the reality that having identified these contested islands and rocks as part of China’s so-called “core interest,” it has become trapped by its own conviction that disputes involving the question of Chinese sovereignty are never negotiable.

As a result, China’s neighbors and the U.S. — which has treaty obligations with the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea, and growing partnerships with other South East Asian countries like Singapore and Vietnam — must be ready for a much more rigid, even belligerent, Chinese posture. It will, of course, be the U.S., who will be most immediately challenged by the Hague’s ruling and China’s response. For having had the 7th Fleet long deployed in Asia and playing an important role in assuring freedom navigation in the region, the White House will be confronted by some very difficult decisions about how far it wants to go in confronting a potentially aggrieved and even more aggressive China.

This will be a delicate high-wire act that must also take into account the importance of the larger U.S.-China relationship and the need for cooperation on other crucial issues such as nuclear proliferation (and particular the fate of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal), climate change, global trade and pandemics.

How these other important issues can compete with what surely will be a vitriolic Chinese reaction is far from certain. But suffice it to say, the interaction over the next few weeks between China, the U.S. and its Pacific neighbors will be crucial, for it will help cast the die for future relations in the whole region.

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Tom Nagorski, Executive Vice President, Asia Society

I was struck by language in the ruling that pertained to the environmental damage done in these waters. This was an often-overlooked element in the Philippines’ case — overlooked because the South China Sea has rightly been seen primarily as a major geopolitical and strategic issue. The ruling finds that the Chinese have inflicted “irreparable” damage to the environment in the course of its building up the various islands, with airstrips and so on. That’s damage done to the coral reef environment, and what the tribunal said was harm “on a substantial scale” to marine life in the area.

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This is important because China has actually become a major voice on global climate and other environmental issues, and also because this part of the ruling will attract attention and criticism from those for whom the environment is more important, or more interesting, than the geo-strategic question of who controls the seas.

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Philipp Ivanov, CEO — Asia Society Australia

The ruling is a test of the Asia-Pacific security architecture and more broadly the regional relations and the global order. We are now entering into a period of great risk, as China plans its immediate response and longer-term strategy for the South China Sea. In the days and months ahead, it will be important to ensure that the dialogue with China — however difficult and emotionally charged it will be  — continues, and the Asia Pacific powers, including Australia, ASEAN and the United States all have a role to play in it. The diplomatic engagement needs to intensify, not retreat.

It is clear that China will feel isolated, and there is a clear danger of an emotional response to the ruling and miscalculations leading to catastrophic consequences for the region. However, it is unlikely that China will alter its plans of expanding its commercial and military footprint on the disputed islands, and in the immediate term we may see the escalation of its diplomatic and rhetorical engagement on the issue.

The key question will be whether the ruling will have any longer-term impact on China’s South China Sea strategy and calculations for other disputed territories — for example, in the East China Sea. The other major consequence of the ruling and China’s rejection of it is that it will reinforce the perceptions of hard-line protagonists of the current world order, from Moscow to Beijing, that the current international system (and its legal infrastructure) is created by the United States and allies and therefore needs to be overhauled.

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TAGS: Asia Society, China’s South China Sea strategy, international tribunal in The Hague, Orville Schell Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations, Philipp Ivanov CEO — Asia Society Australia, South China Sea dispute, The Hague ruling against China, Tom Nagorski Executive Vice President Asia Society
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