A great deal is at stake concerning the peaceful conduct of international affairs in China's dispute with the Philippines over territory in the South China Sea. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague last week ruled illegal China's claims to resources within its self-declared nine-dash line there, one of the world's busiest and most lucrative trading routes.
The Chinese government says the ruling is “null and void” and has “no binding force”. It says the Philippines took the case unilaterally in 2013, after an incident in the Scarborough Shoal when the Chinese navy denied access to Filipino fishermen.
China says the dispute concerns international law on territorial sovereignty and maritime delimitation rather than fishing resources and that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), to which it and the Philippines are signatories, does not apply. It calls for bilateral negotiation instead.
The Philippine government disagrees and has support from other countries bordering the sea and equally exposed to Chinese claims, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and Vietnam. China’s recent physical and military buildup on the disputed Spratlys and Paracels islands in the oil and gas rich sea, through which €3.5 trillion trade passes annually, together with its historically based nine-dash line claiming rights there, is put at stake by the ruling. The line was drawn up after Japan’s defeat in the second World War.
Whatever about the legal complexities involved, the diplomatic and political implications of the ruling are plain to see. China has a choice between multilateral engagement and international law or great power assertiveness in dealing with its Asian neighbourhood.
Its southeast Asian neighbours very much want to see the first approach prevail over Chinese nationalist claims to territory based on ancient tributary relations.
The rest of the world has a deep and vested interest in this choice because a failure to resolve it co-operatively would lead to a further military build-up inescapably involving the US and other Asian powers.