A UN tribunal ruling could trigger the next round of brinksmanship in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) as early as next week. But don’t expect the ruling to end the dispute, especially since the Chinese have already vowed to ignore an adverse ruling.
“It’s…not likely to be resolved this year or by one international ruling, no matter how brilliant the arbitrators are,” said Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security. “So it’s going to be a long-term issue for the next administration.” (UN Ruling Won’t End South China Sea Dispute: Navy Studies Next Clash by Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr. 6-20-2016)
Anytime soon, the much awaited United Nations tribunal’s decision will be released and this will coincide with the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (Rimpac 2016.
Conducted biennially (every even year) under the leadership of the US Third Fleet, Rimpac is a multinational, combined sea mobility exercise in which the Republic of Korea, US, Australia, Canada, Chile, England and Japan have participated since 1971. It is designed to enhance the tactical capabilities and cooperation of participating nations in various aspects of maritime operations at sea.
The exercise is held with the objective of increasing mutual cooperation and enhancing the combined operations capabilities among the countries around the rim of the Pacific Ocean so that they can ensure the safety of major sea lines of communication (SLOC) and improve their combined response capabilities in the event of conflict on the sea.
China’s debut in the world’s largest naval exercise is a “leap of trust” as it teams with the United States and US allies at a time of heightened regional tension over territorial disputes.
Despite growing tensions over the “militarization” of the South China Sea, China’s navy confirmed on June 2 that it will take part in Rimpac. China sent five ships to join the Pacific Rim military exercises that began on June 1 and will last until August 1, near the Hawaiian Islands. China’s Defense Ministry said a fleet of its naval vessels is heading for Hawaii to join US-led multinational naval drills. The five Chinese vessels, including a missile destroyer and a frigate, will engage in electronic communication training with the US Navy en route. They are scheduled to arrive in Hawaii on June 29.
According to official reports, 45 ships, five submarines and 200 aircraft from 27 nations, with 25,000 military personnel, will take part in the event, staging fire, anti-piracy, search and rescue, and, notably, Aegis missile-interception drills. Three Aegis-equipped fleets from the US, Japan and South Korea will practice intelligence coordination amid growing concerns of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. This year’s exercise includes forces from Australia, Brazil, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, China, Peru, the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Tonga, the United Kingdom and the United States. Russia took part in 2012, but canceled its participation in 2014 owing to interrupted military cooperation between Moscow and Washington over ongoing territorial disputes in Ukraine. (globalsecurity.org)
The following are from analysts that will somehow give us ideas on the possible scenario after the release of the UN tribunal decision.
According to Cronin, “There’s some hope after the Unclos [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea] ruling that we’re going to be at least managing the tensions. China could certainly escalate if they desired, but lately, he said, “the Chinese have been looking to ratchet down the tensions even while they’ve tried to move their influence forward.” In other words, don’t expect fighting, but don’t expect acquiescence to the UN ruling either.
“Patrick Cronin is right: The ruling solves nothing, nor was it meant to,” said Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Security. “It will add additional pressure on Beijing, and it will help define the boundaries of any future negotiations–likely years away–but it cannot resolve the disputes.”
Fellow CSIS scholar Bonnie Glaser said “the ruling is likely to increase tensions at least in the near term. In a sense it already has, as China has rejected the ruling, and many countries of the world have taken sides, with the US is seeking to rally nations in support of international law and a rules-based order–i.e. against China’s rejection.”
“In the short-term, we’ll probably see China engage in some new escalation to punish Manila and signal that it will not be bound by the ruling,” Poling said. For example, said Glaser, “China may establish baselines for its territorial claims in the Spratlys, a precursor to announcing an ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone).”
Besides the legal and maritime maneuverings, Poling said, “we will also see the start of the next phase of the battle over competing narratives, this time focused on how many countries Manila and friends can get to voice public support for the ruling as legally binding and demand China complies. The question will be, whether or not they can maintain that pressure from a broad swath of countries over the long-term” in the face of Chinese diplomatic and economic pressure.
“The South China Sea territorial disputes are likely to persist for a long time,” said Glaser.
“The question is whether they can be managed, not resolved.”
In these exciting times, in the midst of the biggest military exercise, let us all be prepared and hope for something better as we await the UN tribunal ruling. And with the incoming President, with his wisdom, we pray that the South China Sea dispute can still be managed and war can be avoided.