China-Philippines face-off heightens regional tension

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Undaunted by China’s aggressive rhetoric and expansionist claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, the Philippines has recently filed a legal case unilaterally against Beijing with an International Arbitration Tribunal in The Hague under the UN’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Notwithstanding that China has declared that it would not accept or participate in international arbitration under any circumstance, Beijing does appear to be wary of the latest development, despite the fact that any final ruling by the court on the dispute cannot be enforced.

The ruling will provide credence and shall be instrumental in molding international opinion on the dispute, even if it involves complex legal and technical matters that could take a long while to be settled.

Despite the fact that China has chosen not to participate or accept arbitration, it does remain bound by the UNCLOS to acknowledge the decision of the tribunal, whatever it may be, given that it is a signatory to the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea. Manila has maintained that the Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea are illegal as per the UNCLOS and has submitted evidence in the form of more than 40 maps and a nearly 4,000-page document to the arbitration tribunal.

It is evidently clear that Beijing is strictly averse to the dispute being internationalized and the latest move by the Philippines seeking international intervention could well jeopardize Sino-Filipino relations permanently. The internal discourse in China seems to acknowledge that even a slight tacit acceptance of international intervention shall prove detrimental to Chinese claims that it contests with other countries in the region.


The focal point of the Chinese argument is that the entire dispute with the Philippines is regarding sovereignty over the Nansha Islands—parts of which, as per the Chinese argument, are under the Philippines, illegally. Moreover, tensions have escalated in the recent past with Manila air dropping food and water supply to soldiers stationed on the Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea. Chinese surveillance ships patrolling waters around the Shoal blocked Filipino supply ships and ordered ships carrying construction material to leave the area.

What the Chinese foreign ministry and state-controlled media deliberately seem to be omitting in their statements and recent writings is the controversial “nine-dash line” claim which primarily encompasses most of the South China Sea. Manila, on the other hand, has submitted China’s “nine-dash line” claim as invalid under the UNCLOS. This contentious line was first published officially on a map by China’s Nationalist government in 1947 and continued to appear on PRC’s official maps post-1949 as well. China has acted in the most obstinate manner by refusing to clarify/define what exactly does the line denote/include? China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did suggest in a circuitous manner that the line possibly indicates a claim to the islands and reefs lying within it. It is expected of Beijing to elucidate its position now that the matter has reached international arbitration.

In April 2012, government vessels from both nations faced off for several weeks at the Scarborough Shoal with the Chinese military taking cue from how it effectively seized control of the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea later in July 2012 from the Philippines without having to resort to war. Having found success in redefining the status quo in the above scenario, the Chinese leadership appears heavily inclined toward upstaging the rule-based international order and altering the status quo in its favor with respect to disputes that it has with Japan, and in this case, the Philippines. Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam are contesting Chinese claims in the South China Sea.

The clash between the Philippines and China echoing since April 2012 over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea has seemingly been upped to the next level with the Philippine military all set to place the shoal under the jurisdiction of its Western Command in Palawan, moving from being under the Northern Luzon Command in Tarlac. Officials in the Philippines revealed earlier that the Chinese Coast Guard fired water cannons to drive away Filipino fishermen from the shoal and thus came the decision to bolster Manila’s defence under a single commander to improve “unity of effort and unity of command,” amid ongoing tensions with China.

Although the Philippines military has termed the water cannon incident “really alarming,” they have refrained from retaliating with a military response. The Philippine military will surely be working out the transfer of jurisdiction despite the distance of the shoal to Palawan, 500 km south and much closer to another group of disputed islands—the Spratlys. Apparently, the Western Command possesses requisite assets that can address territorial defense and monitoring including conducting regular monitoring and reporting.

It is fitting for a nation to attempt resolving a dispute, whatever the magnitude, in a peaceful manner in accordance with international norms and institutions. The Constitution of the Philippines states that the nation shall pursue an independent foreign policy, with the paramount consideration being that of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and right to self-determination. Had Manila missed the March 30, 2014 deadline for filing the arbitration case, its position would have likely received a blow and more crucially, the consequent public perception would have been unconstructive.

Manila’s move to the International Arbitration Tribunal should be considered as a diplomatic attempt at buttressing its case against Chinese claims that span almost 90 percent of the South China Sea’s 3.5 million sq km (1.35 million sq mile) waters, with the sea providing 10 percent of the global fisheries catch and carrying $5 trillion in ship-borne trade annually. The decision of the Philippines to seek legitimacy to its claims under the UNCLOS auspices has challenged China’s precise legal justification to its side of the argument as it continues to remain uncertain.

Dr. Monika Chansoria is Senior Researcher and Head of the China-study Program at the Center for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi, India. This Center is the research think institute of the Indian Army. She is also a well known writer on foreign policy issues. She has been writing opinion articles for The Sunday Guardian newspaper published from London and New Delhi. Her latest upcoming book is titled Nuclear China: A Veiled Secret (2014).

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