Beijing responds to landmark ruling on the South China Sea by landing airliners on militarized islets

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — In a major legal setback for Beijing, an international tribunal has rejected and rebuffed many of Mainland China’s claims regarding exclusive sovereignty and rights in the disputed South China Sea.

The landmark ruling in the Hague, by the Permanent Court of Arbitration stated there was no evidence that China had exercised exclusive control over the region’s waters or resources. Whether this significant legal ruling defuses competing political claims or energizes Chinese nationalism towards the region remains unpredictable.

Chinese airliner lands at Mischief Reef on July 13.
Chinese airliner lands at Mischief Reef on July 13.

The Hague ruling clearly favors the Philippines; the Court ruled that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights.

Beijing predictable bristled at the judgement which it calls “ill founded.” Xinhua, China’s state news agency, said “as the panel has no jurisdiction, its decision is naturally null and void.”

PRC President Xi Jinping scolded, “China’s territorial sovereignty and marine rights in the South China Sea will not be affected by the so-called Philippines South China Sea ruling in any way.”

Xi added that China was “determined to maintain peace and stability” and was committed to resolving disputes “through negotiations based on respect to historical facts and according to international laws.” In other words, Beijing’s version of history, underscored by China’s “nine dash line” outlines its maritime claims.

Though the vast South China Sea basin has been claimed by Beijing, the region sees conflicting claims of sovereignty on many of the reefs among the largely uninhabited islands and rocks. No fewer than six sovereign states claim at least some of the Spratly and Parcel islands which reportedly hold underwater mineral resources.

The Philippines who brought the case to the Hague sees its sovereignty impinged upon by Beijing’s standoffs in the disputed Scarborough Shoal.

Since the ruling the Chinese have landed two commercial aircraft, an Airbus 319 and a 737, on recently constructed airfields on Mischief Reef and Subi islet.

China’s militarization is widespread throughout the region and includes land reclamation in places like Fiery Cross Reef which now has a 10,000 foot runway.

Structures evoking a James Bond movie have sprouted from the azure waters which bristle with satellite dishes, heliports, and runways on previously uninhabited islets. In May, a U.S. Navy destroyer sailed a freedom of navigation mission within 12 miles of Fiery Cross reef.

Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan are all affected. Interestingly the Republic of China on Taiwan holds the largest of the Spratly group, Taiping island, on which it maintains a small Coast Guard and research facility.

The South China Sea holds not only the presumed untapped mineral rights and exclusive fishing areas but as importantly remains the sea lane conduit for both East Asia’s export trade as well as its petroleum jugular vein for energy imports.

Significantly the South China Sea remains the sea lane of communication for fifty percent of the world’s shipping; commerce for Japan, Korea, Taiwan, South East Asia, and naturally China. Thus, the People’s Republic of China gains immeasurable geopolitical clout by direct or indirect control of these vital waters.

While Washington takes no formal position on the sovereignty debate, it stresses disputes should be settled peacefully. Traditionally, the United States has argued for freedom of navigation in these international waters. The U.S. urged the parties to consider the ruling “final and legally binding.”

Nonetheless, Beijing’s belligerent nationalism views many adjacent areas to the Mainland as “historically” part of China.

Much like Mussolini’s claims of the Mediterranean being his Mare Nostrum, a doctrine based on historical Roman control throughout the region, here too there’s the selective use of history to establish ownership.

The PRC can opt out of the UN Convention of Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and therefore not be bound by the recent ruling. More menacingly, Beijing may establish a Air Defense Identification Zone ( ADIZ) over these disputed waters.

So beyond the complex case of overlapping claims, can there be multinational cooperation?

Shared Resources. Defuse the issue through diplomacy. The UNCLOS convention allows for a 200 mile exclusive economic zone around each genuine island, not rocks or reefs. Naturally, states wish to maximize their geographic advantage but this results in overlapping claims. Beijing should work with the Association of South East Asian Nations, ASEAN, to reach settlements with the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia over resources.

Open Sailing. The U.S. position has favored the region as international waters free for the flow of unhindered maritime commerce. Freedom of navigation remains the key. Enhanced U.S. Navy presence in the region insures deterrence against Beijing’s geopolitical expansion.

Preventive Diplomacy. The South China Sea poses a classic case for preventive diplomacy. The risks of confrontation are growing. It’s time to defuse.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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