Imminent UN verdict on South China Sea matters to fishing, trade – but will China ignore it?

Published on
May 11, 2016

The neat and sedate brownstone terraces of The Hague are a long way from Beijing or Manila, but it’s here that one of most important decisions in Asian foreign relations will be made soon.

The United Nations’ international court at The Hague is deciding a case brought by the Philippines under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea over what it claims is Chinese occupation of its waters in the South China Sea.

During my visit to The Hague, I met a Chinese journalist friend who covers Europe for a major daily newspaper in China. But he wasn’t writing about the case; instead, he was visiting a Dutch dairy company that exports to China. His newspaper doesn’t cover the court case because China has decided to ignore it, my friend said.

Filipino diplomats, however, are watching the case closely and one of them was eager to explain the ramifications of the case during a meeting in a hotel cafe at The Hague. The Philippines justifies the case because China has claimed a series of reefs and rocks about 150 kilometres off its shoreline, and about 2,000 kilometres from China’s own shores.

China is dredging sand and rocks from the seabed to form artificial islands and air bases on the islands, explained the diplomat. China is doing likewise with another series of islands also claimed by Vietnam and several other Southeast Asian states.

When I put this to my Chinese journalist friend, he repeated a line I’ve read in his newspaper. That is, most of the vast South China Sea has been China’s since ancient times. But as we talked, he gave me some other reasons for China’s controversial claims.

China is a superpower, he said, and as a superpower it should be the dominant force in its own region. Until recently, Asia’s dominant sea power has been the United States, which has naval bases across the region, from Japan to the Philippines. And China has clearly studied the American dominance, as their establishment of a military presence on islands far out in the South China Sea follows the example of the U.S. military’s own presence in Hawaii, thousands of miles from the U.S. mainland, which gives it the ability to project power throughout the Pacific Ocean.

So China is building its own Hawaii. But Southeast Asian nations like the Philippines have argued that China has no historical right to the South China Sea. Again, my friend brought up the official Chinese government line that resurrects an obscure 19th century map justifying Chinese claims. And then he surprised me by talking about Chinese hegemony – China ruled countries like Vietnam for a thousand years, so it should have historical precedence, my friend said.

Yes, China did rule many of its neighbours as vassal states for centuries. But hegemony is usually a dirty word in Chinese propaganda, used to criticize Western imperialists and U.S. efforts to police global waterways like the Pacific. It appears China now also wants hegemony in its own backyard, and that’s important for the world to note, especially when those claims relate to the South China Sea, through which an enormous amount of global trade passes.

The U.S. has been contesting Chinese claims by sailing its navy through the disputed waters. It also has defense treaties with the Philippines and with other states that contest Chinese claims to the South China Sea.

But while China is building Hawaii-style outposts in contested waters, it is also constructing what will soon be the world’s largest submarine fleet. It has already built an enormous paramilitary under the guise of a Coast Guard. By doing so, it has upped the ante in a dangerous game of brinkmanship.

It has often been thought that China’s goals in the South China Sea were confined to the minerals said to lie beneath the seabed. And I’ve seen the ceremony and celebration with which fish catches from these disputed waters are served up in Beijing restaurants. Having overfished its own waters, China’s massive fleet of trawlers covets new resources such as those found near its newly-developed islands.

Whether its claims are deemed legal or not, as China rolls out new vessels and submarines, its control of these fishing waters will become a reality. Creating “facts on the ground” that are later irreversible is another tactic China has picked up from Western statecraft.

The situation in the South China Sea is also about control and power and China’s ambitions to be superpower. As we traveled through the flat, green Dutch pastureland, my Chinese journalist friend was quick to point to the many military bases around the world acquired and maintained by European powers to project power and maintain their interests.

The verdict to be delivered in the coming weeks in The Hague will deem whether China’s territorial ambitions abide by international rules.

Don’t expect China to abide by those rules.

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