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South China Sea ruling: An opportunity to mend ties

D-Day is upon us, with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague set to deliver its long-anticipated award in the Philippines versus China case today. Filed in January 2013 by Manila to seek clarification on 15 issues pertaining to the South China Sea, the case will be a game-changer in the long-running disputes.

South China Sea ruling: An opportunity to mend ties

A Chinese Coast Guard ship following the Philippines’ Motoryacht Isla after it was ordered to leave Scarborough Shoal. Earlier, China had reciprocated Manila’s conciliatory stance by allowing Filipinos to fish in the vicinity. Photo: The New York Times

D-Day is upon us, with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague set to deliver its long-anticipated award in the Philippines versus China case today. Filed in January 2013 by Manila to seek clarification on 15 issues pertaining to the South China Sea, the case will be a game-changer in the long-running disputes.

The announcement of the award will mark the end of the legal phase of the disputes, and signals the beginning of the next stage of high-stakes geopolitical chess, with players from as near as Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Beijing, and as far as Washington DC, poised to make their next moves.

The stakes are undoubtedly high, especially for China. Indeed, the South China Sea has been the albatross around Beijing’s neck and has blemished its “peaceful rise” façade. The South China Sea “prize” has also exacted a high price for China by tarnishing its global standing and prestige. Unfortunately, this point is lost on China, resulting in the deepening strategic distrust between the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) and China.

President Xi Jinping was unequivocal in China’s uncompromising stance when it comes to the South China Sea.

At the commemoration ceremony of the Chinese Community Party’s 95th anniversary, he proclaimed that “no foreign country … should expect us to swallow the bitter pill of harm to our national sovereignty, security or development interests”. He further added that China “will not stir up trouble, but is also not afraid of trouble”.

Few would doubt China’s ability to dispel troubles, but there are many who would also argue that Beijing could not absolve itself from blame in the South China Sea political storm.

China does itself no favours by maintaining an acerbic tone towards the tribunal and has publicly announced that it would dismiss the award. If China is unperturbed by today’s award, it is doing a very poor job of hiding it. The fact that China has diligently courted support from countries near and far to back its decision to ignore the tribunal suggests Beijing is not insensitive to international public opinion.

ASEAN’S ROLE

China can choose to disregard the tribunal’s ruling but it cannot wish away its implications. Beijing will undoubtedly have an oversized influence over how the South China Sea disputes will play out, but it is the Philippines that will set the tone by framing the narrative of the ruling by The Hague.

While on the brink of what is expected to be momentous diplomatic and strategic victory, Manila reached out to Beijing with an olive branch to “quickly begin direct talks”.

Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay went a step further by offering to work with China into “jointly exploiting natural gas reserves and fishing grounds within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone”. He also offered to share Scarborough Shoal, which he claimed had “been the traditional fishing grounds not only for Filipinos but also for Vietnamese and Chinese”. Mr Yasay has since qualified these statements by reserving future courses of action, pending careful study on the yet to be released ruling.

The Philippines’ conciliatory stance, which was reciprocated by China in allowing Filipinos to fish in the vicinity of the shoal, eases the pressure on Asean to take a strong position against China. The friendlier tone on both sides also bodes well for the ongoing but long-drawn negotiations on both the implementation of the Declaration on the Code of Conduct of the Parties and the establishment of a Code of Conduct.

Still, Asean will feature prominently in the Philippines-China saga over the South China Sea, especially following the acrimonious Special Asean-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Kunming, which will long be remembered for China’s back-handed tactics in derailing an Asean joint statement.

All eyes, however, will be on Laos, which, as Asean Chair, has the responsibility for building a consensus over an appropriate regional response on one of the most important tests on the use of international law as a mode of settlement of disputes, which stands as one of Asean’s central tenets.

A joint Asean statement may be a tall order, with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen openly stating his objections. The best that can be expected from Asean is a “safe” statement to affirm the importance of international law and the imperative to preserve regional stability while upholding the freedom of navigation.

All is not lost for Asean if it fails to produce a joint statement. This shortcoming is by no means a yardstick for Asean unity. In the organisation’s 49-year-old history, stand-alone joint statements are the exception, and not the norm. The true test of Asean’s unity will come in two weeks, when Asean convenes the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Vientiane from July 21 to 26. A repeat of the Phnom Penh fiasco — when Asean failed to issue a joint communique for the first time — will force Asean to do some serious soul-searching on the viability of the grouping.

The three-and-a-half-year legal proceeding initiated by the Philippines is coming to an anti-climactic conclusion. Manila has pledged not to “flaunt” a favourable ruling and will refrain from issuing “provocative” statements. Asean will take the cue from Manila accordingly and support the thawing of Manila-Beijing ties.

More than anything, the eagerness on both sides not to sensationalise the ruling bodes well for regional stability and provides an opportunity for all parties to chart a new beginning. It is incumbent on Manila and Beijing to seize the moment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Tang Siew Mun is Head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. The views are his own.

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