Armed conflict threat as regional rivals await South China Sea ruling

Analysis – ahead of Hague ruling on Philippine coastal rights, China denies military intent

Days before an international arbitration court rules on the disputed territory in the South China Sea, the threat of armed conflict hangs over the Asia Pacific. Beijing has stepped up sovereignty claims and is accusing the US of trying to isolate China.

Although US president Barack Obama’s plan to build an “Asian Pivot” is on the back burner, the US has been steadily expanding its influence, publicly voicing its disapproval of what it sees as China’s militarisation of the South China Sea. It has sent aircraft carriers to the area and is staging military exercises with allies.

Annoyed major players

China believes Washington is trying to become more powerful in the Asia Pacific region at China’s expense, but Beijing is finding it difficult to find sympathy locally, as it has annoyed nearly all the main regional players including the

Philippines

,

Vietnam

,

Malaysia

,

Taiwan

and

Brunei

, with its claims and aggressive activities in the maritime region. One of these is a land reclamation programme in the Spratly archipelago.

China’s sovereignty claims are based on the “nine-dash line” which encompasses nearly all of the South China Sea, including the Spratlys, the Paracels and remote sandbars.

The Philippines has asked the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to affirm its right to areas within 200 nautical miles of its coastline, under the terms of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

While the nine-dash claim will most likely be ruled inconsistent with the UN convention, China is expected to ignore the ruling. Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China exerted “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea Islands and the adjacent waters”.

“The Chinese government holds a consistent and clear position of not accepting nor recognising any ruling made by the arbitral tribunal set up at the unilateral request of the Philippines,” said Hong.

An article in the Communist Party's organ Qiushi described the arbitration as "a political farce under 'legal' pretexts aiming to fake 'a new reality' which provokes both principles of international law and order."

Control of the region is strategically important, because €4.5 trillion in maritime trade passes through it every year, and the South China Sea contains rich oil and gas reserves.

Satellite footage shows China has installed runways that can carry military aircraft and placed surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island in the Paracel Islands.

Yu Lingli, a commentator on US-China relations, said. “With its strong economic growth and greater economic prowess, China is better able to protect its boundaries, so the US now accuses China of changing its position and challenging the world order. But let’s not forget, this all started with the US decision to expand its strategic position in the Asia Pacific region. The US shouldn’t be involved,” said Yu.

Beijing is staging military manoeuvres in the region ahead of the ruling and state media are full of editorials attacking the US and denying accusations it is trying to bully its smaller neighbours. In one show, Beyond the Waves, the state broadcaster CCTV accused the US of trying to isolate China.

“The US has spared no effort to drive a wedge between China and its neighbours,” said one commentator, while another said: “Would you accept a traffic court giving a verdict on the status of your property?”

Another presenter said: “When you claim your every right to the South China Sea, you go too far.”

The state newspaper Global Times even urged the military to prepare for confrontation. "I personally don't think there will be an armed conflict. So far, the US and surrounding countries in the South China Sea are putting on a lot of pressure and competing for public opinion and support," said Yu.

Historical claim

China’s claim has no formal basis outside the country’s own maritime laws, but the government claims a historical foundation, saying China was the first country to discover and name the island group, and has a history of continuous use and authority over 2,000 years.

After the ruling, the big question will be how China proceeds. If it ignores the ruling, and flouts international law, it could further aggravate nerves in the region and eventually armed conflict could result.

Some believe there can still be dialogue that will not involve Beijing giving ground on an issue it has made central to its ambition to boost its standing in the area by matching its economic strength with strategic influence.

“China and the Philippines, after the arbitration decision, can renew their negotiations and settle the issues by taking account of the decision without formally mentioning it. ‘Face’ is crucial, of course. But with every Beijing propaganda blast, it will become harder to save,” wrote Jerome A Cohen, director of the US-Asia Law Institute at New York University.

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