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China dealt a blow: Philippines victorious in South China Sea dispute

Sadiq Naqvi | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST

The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in Hague announced the much awaited verdict on the dispute between Philippines and China on the South China Sea. The verdict. which upholds the position taken by Manila, has evoked sharp reactions from Beijing. The anxieties over the Chinese reaction on this ruling concerning one of the most important trade routes, with over $5 trillion of commerce going through it, has already pushed crude oil prices up by a dollar a barrel.

Chinese ministries and news agencies react

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that the award is null and void and has no binding force. China neither accepts nor recognizes it. The Chinese ambassador to the Netherlands called it a Black Tuesday at Hague.

The spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Defense, too, gave a statement that the Chinese military will firmly protect national sovereignty and maritime rights and interests. President Xi Jinping said China's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights will not be affected by the arbitrations award and that China rejects any proposition or action based upon this ruling.

Also read: South China Sea dispute -- Explainer

The Philippines had moved the tribunal in 2013, after diplomatic efforts to arrive at a solution, proved futile in the face of aggressive Chinese expansionist plans. The areas spanning 3.5m square kilometres, which Beijing asserts as it's own sovereign territory, are also claimed by Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and Japan, besides the Philippines. China has been claiming that the tribunal does not have jurisdiction over the case.

Xinhua, the state-run news agency, worked overtime to disseminate the message that the whole process was a farce, from the very beginning. "Much like a poisoned tree, which will never bear good fruit, the award issued in the South China Sea arbitration was contaminated from the start," it wrote in one of the editorials, while it pushed other reports on the support China has been getting from experts in countries like Sudan and Pakistan. It also blamed the 'right-wing Japanese Judge' who was part of the tribunal which gave the ruling.

What the tribunal says

The tribunal in Hague, in its sweeping ruling says "although Chinese navigators and fishermen, as well as those of other states, had historically made use of the islands in the South China Sea, there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources".

The Tribunal concluded that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the 'nine dash line.' The ruling also says that the artificial islands constructed by China violate Philippines' sovereign rights and have caused

"permanent irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem". China has been claiming territorial rights citing that the waters have been in Chinese control since the Han dynasty.

Xinhua worked overtime to disseminate the message that the whole process was a farce

China, in a passive-aggressive manner, has been going about furthering its military activities in the contested region. The ruling may result in a spurt in such activities, experts say, even as the US has hinted that it is not looking forward to a confrontation. with China as they are an important player in world trade. Both the US and the Chinese have pushed their military presence in the contested territory, with the former contesting Chinese claims, invoking its freedom to navigate.

International reaction to the verdict

While Manila has called for restraint and sobriety, Japan and the US, have issued statements saying the ruling is final and legally binding and that it needs to be respected by both parties, much to the anguish of Beijing. "The United States expresses its hope and expectation that both parties will comply with their obligations," the State Department spokesperson said.

Lu Kang, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson asked Japan to not interfere in the issue. "China hopes Japan will bear in mind the terms of China-Japan relations and of regional peace and stability, and reflect on its position on South China Sea disputes." The Xinhua editorial, meanwhile attacked the US. "Interference from certain countries has only muddied the water further, exposing the arbitration case for what it is: pure political provocation," it read, while adding, "The US, for example, is not a directly conecerned party nor a signatory of the declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea, nor a country that has acceded to UNCLOS. Yet this has not stopped it from being vocal on the issue".

Experts say that it's a big gamble for China, the way it has rubbished the decision of the UN-backed tribunal. It could have serious ramification on other trade and business aspects which, too, are governed by international law, if it sets such a precedent against the ruling.

Japan and US say the South China Sea ruling is legally binding

Meanwhile, India has reacted on expected lines on this ruling against China, the most contentious diplomatic wrangle in East Asia in recent times. The MEA urged all parties to show utmost respect for the UNCLOS, "which establishes the international legal order of the seas and oceans".

The MEA, in it's statement said that "India supports freedom of navigation and over flight, and unimpeded commerce, based on the principles of international law, as reflected notably in the UNCLOS," while adding that "India believes that States should resolve disputes through peaceful means without threat or use of force and exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that could complicate or escalate disputes affecting peace and stability."

China-Pakistan vs India-US

With the Chinese promising to pump billions of dollars in Pakistan for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and creating 'procedural hurdles' to India's bid to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, India has been moving closer to the US.

The South China Sea issue featured in the Joint Statement when Prime Minister Narendra Modi met President Obama in 2014 and again in 2015 and called for freedom of navigation and advised against use of force. The last joint statement in June, however, did not mention the issue since India was actively seeking Chinese support for it's NSG bid, which came to a naught after opposition from Beijing.

India and the US, this year, decided to make Japan a permanent fixture at the Malabar Exercise in the South China Sea and Western Pacific, a convergence pushed by Chinese aggression in the East and South China seas. The presence of four Indian Navy stealth ships, part of the exercise in May this year had seen strong reactions from Beijing.

China is rooting for China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, while India moves closer to the US

With its message urging respect to the ruling of the tribunal, India has sent a strong message to the Chinese, say experts. And that post this ruling, it will have an upper hand on the issue of abiding by the UNCLOS, to which even the Chinese are a signatory. In 2014, soon after Prime Minister Modi administered office, India had respected the PCA decision in its dispute with Bangladesh which awarded the latter almost fourth-fifth of the disputed area in the Bay of Bengal. "India had shown that a bigger power can accommodate smaller power," says Srikanth Kondapalli, Professor of Chinese Studies at JNU.

Kondapalli also explains how it will also be beneficial for India's trade since 55% of it passes through the South China Sea. And that India will have the option of venturing in the South China Sea in the case of Chinese aggression in the Indian Ocean.

Another former diplomat who has served as India's envoy to China, however, urged caution and said that "we should be wary of vested interests, playing other people's game" and "behave like a growing power", since it is a bilateral issue which does not warrant any frenzy. "Has our right to passage been affected? Has our trade been affected?" he asked."We must stick to facts," he advised while adding that it is not the first time that a UNSC member has gone against the decision of an international court. Indeed, in the 1980's the Reagan administration had refused to participate in the infamous Contra case proceedings in the International Court of Justice citing that the ICJ did not have the jurisdiction. And when the ICJ came out with a scathing ruling in favour of Nicaragua, indicting the US, the latter had used its veto in the UNSC to block the order to pay reparations.

Edited by Sahil Bhalla

Also read: South China Sea verdict: Respect the UNCLOS, says MEA

Also read: Watch: 5 videos that explain the South China Sea dispute

Also read: Beijing slams Hague Tribunal verdict after it rejects South China Sea claims

First published: 13 July 2016, 2:52 IST