FOR understandable reasons, I am completely dependent on international media coverage of The Hague tribunal decision in the dispute between the Philippines and China, and its reverberations.
On this landmark ruling, the superficiality of broadcast media as a news medium was totally exposed. International and local TV networks could not provide adequate coverage and analysis of the event. They were dumb in the sense of having nothing to say.
Print media was king
In this landmark event, print media was king. The wire agencies—principally Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters—delivered continuous reports and analysis of what was happening.
Once again, the internet showed why it is an indispensable channel of communications as the conduit of the websites of top media organizations. For a change, Facebook was irrelevant.
For my own commentary on the arbitral decision, I have relied mainly on the wire agencies, and the New York Times, The Economist and The Washington Post, and our own reportage here at The Manila Times on what was happening on our end.
Their combined reportage and analysis enable me to say with some confidence the following:
1. There is no immediate danger of conflict being triggered by the arbitral decision, especially a big showdown between China and the US.
2. Regardless of the resounding rebuke it received from The Hague Court, China will not pull out of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
3. While there is no enforcement mechanism for the arbitral ruling, it carries tremendous weight in the international community.
4. President Xi Jin-Ping is in a fix at home because of the ruling. He led china to claim that the South China Sea is a Chinese lake.
5. Sentiment has grown in the US Congress for more US defense of Philippine interests in the Scarborough Shoal.
6. China is caught in a predicament by the arbitral decision. This setback has come at a time when its rise as a global power is widely recognized. But now its prestige has been undermined.
7. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) was useless in the case. China has prevented the association from issuing the simplest statement on the case, because it has Laos and Cambodia in its pocket.
The Economist’s view
I want to call attention to two articles in this week’s issue of The Economist.
The first article commented: “The judgment could change the politics of the South China Sea and, in the long run, force China to choose what sort of country it wants to be—one that supports rules-based global regimes, or one that challenges them in pursuit of great-power status.
“The Hague tribunal comprehensively rejected China’s view of things, ruling that only claims consistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) were valid.
“It is likely that China will set up an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea, like the one it declared over the East China Sea in 2013 after a spat with Japan over islands there. America’s military aircraft ignore this, and would do the same if a southern one were imposed.”
A no-less-worrying possibility is that China might start building on Scarborough Shoal, where the court case began.
“In the short term, there are reasons China might be cautious. It is hosting an annual meeting of G20 leaders in September. It is spending lavishly on preparations. The last thing it wants is for countries to boycott the event or spoil it with recriminations over its response to the verdict.”
In the second article, “Come back from the brink, Beijing,” the magazine urges China to moderate its reaction to the tribunal ruling. It wrote: “The ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is firm, clear and everything China did not want it to be. The judges said that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) should determine how the waters of the South China Sea are divided among countries, not China’s ill-explained “nine-dash line” which implies the sea is Chinese.
For China, this is a humiliation. Its leaders have called the proceedings illegal. Its huge recent live-fire exercises in the South China Sea imply that it may be planning a tough response. This could involve imposing an “Air Defence Identification Zone” of the kind it has already declared over the East China Sea. Or China might start building on the Scarborough Shoal, which it wrested from the Philippines in 2012 after a standoff between the two countries’ patrol boats.
That would be hugely provocative.
“There is a better way,” said the magazine. “China could climb down and, in effect, quietly recognise the court’s ruling. That would mean ceasing its island-building, letting other countries fish where UNCLOS allows and putting a stop to poaching by its own fishermen…
“It would be in China’s interests to secure peace in its region by sitting down with the Philippines, Vietnam and other South-East Asian neighbours and trying to resolve differences. Right now those countries, and America, should avoid action that will needlessly enrage China, and instead give it a chance to walk back from the edge.”
Double down or cool down
The Washington Post sounded a similar message in a major analysis: “China’s dilemma: Double down or cool down” written by Ben Dooley. He reported:
“An international tribunal ruling against Beijing’s extensive claims in the South China Sea is the Asian giant’s biggest diplomatic setback in years, leaving it facing a difficult choice between pragmatism and nationalism, analysts say.
“Beijing has unleashed a deluge of vitriol against the ruling, but at the same time the permanent UN Security Council member is trying to position itself as a key player in the global community… .
“Its wrath was undercut by the fact that by boycotting the proceedings, insisting that the tribunal had no jurisdiction, Beijing had repeatedly rejected the opportunity to defend its position, analysts said.”
Yanmei Xie, a China analyst for the International Crisis Group, said its ambitions for a bigger place on the global diplomatic stage put it in a quandary.
“China is at a point where it wants to participate more in the shaping of international institutions and in some cases has taken up a role as a leader,” she told AFP.
“This really will be the first true test of Xi Jinping’s leadership because he’s ridden the tiger of nationalist sentiment and wrapped himself in the flag I think very successfully,” said Euan Graham, of Australia’s Lowy Institute think tank.
“But at the same time, China does take its membership of the United Nations and the Security Council very seriously,” he said, adding “it’s not easy to reject an approved tribunal that is drawing on a United Nations treaty.”
Hu Xingdou, a foreign policy expert at Beijing University of Technology, said a military reaction to the ruling was unlikely.
“It would lead to the interruption of China’s modernisation and lead China to become more and more closed,” he said.
“Ultimately, he said, China’s response “must not be too exaggerated, and must not be too outraged.”
I also relied a lot on the reports of The New York Times. Acknowledgments must wait for another column.