High stakes in the South China Sea: On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), in a unanimous decision, delivered a “triple whammy” to China. In a press release, it said that the Arbitral Tribunal ruled that “there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea falling with the ‘nine-dash line’.”
Secondly, the Tribunal reaffirmed that the rocks and reefs are not “islands” by virtue of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea’s (UNCLOS) definition, which says that an island must be capable of supporting human habitation. It says that only islands are entitled to a 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Thirdly, the Tribunal found that the Scarborough Shoal is within the Philippines’ EEZ and that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in her EEZ.
In regard to China’s reclamation and construction of artificial islands within the Philippines’ EEZs, the Tribunal concluded that “China had inflicted irreparable harm to the marine environment, and destroyed evidence of the natural condition of features in the South China Sea (SCS) that formed part of the Parties’ dispute.”
But while the Tribunal’s ruling is crystal clear and, without a shadow of a doubt, conforms with international norms as well as “freedom of navigation” exercised by all countries, China has from the get-go refused to participate in the arbitration proceedings and had rejected the Tribunal’s ruling.
Obviously, China’s miscalculation in asserting her “indisputable sovereignty” over 90% of the SCS, delineated by a “nine-dash line” of dubious provenance, has created self-inflicted problems for Chinese President Xi Jinping. In pursuing his “China Dream,” Xi hoped to extend China’s political and military hegemony far beyond China’s shores. But he made a faulty presumption that the United States would not interfere with China’s imperialistic machination. He should have gotten the cue from then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she announced the U.S.’s “Pivot to Asia” strategy during her visit to Australia in 2011. She said that 60% of American naval and air forces would be deployed to the Indo-Asia-Pacific region by 2020.
Today, the “rebalancing,” as the pivot is referred to, is pretty much achieved after the U.S. Third and Seventh Fleets — combined strength of more than 200 warships and 400 warplanes – were placed under a unified command and control structure. With five of America’s 10 aircraft carrier battle groups operating in the Indo-Asia-Pacific waters, Xi should think twice before he’d send China’s green-water navy to face the U.S.’s awesome blue-water armada.
In an attempt to scare the U.S. and protect her self-declared “indisputable sovereignty” over the SCS, China threatened to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the contested waters. But the question is: Does China have the capability to defend an ADIZ over a vast region? China’s airbase on Hainan Island is the only one that could provide the logistics necessary to defend an ADIZ over the SCS. But it’s not enough.
With a military option outside the realm of probabilities – unless China is on a suicide mission – diplomacy is the only viable solution to settle the territorial disputes among the six claimants of the SCS. Using the Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling as a baseline for negotiations, it would level the playing field for all the claimants to come to an agreement on how to deal with their territorial disputes; thus, giving Xi Jinping a face-saving way out of a messy bind.
Meanwhile, President Rodrigo Duterte wasted no time in tapping Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio (who played a crucial role in building the case against China), Associate Justice Francis Jardeleza, and former solicitor general Florin Hilbay — they’re all part of the Philippine team that participated in the Arbitral Tribunal hearings — to study the landmark decision and formulate a game plan. Duterte also asked former president Fidel V. Ramos to initiate diplomatic talks with China.
From a geopolitical perspective, the Tribunal’s ruling has effectively extinguished any notion that China might have in reclaiming and building an artificial island around Scarborough Shoal. The shoal’s location is strategic to China because by reclaiming it and militarizing it — just like it did with seven reefs and rocks in the Spratly archipelago – she would be in a position to control passage through the Luzon Strait, which is the closest waterway for China to reach the Philippine Sea and Western Pacific. If China breaks through the strait, which is the weakest link in the First Island Chain that runs from Japan through Taiwan, the Philippines, and Borneo, it would push back the U.S.’s defense line to the Second Island Chain, which would be right at America’s doorsteps – Guam. Do you think America would allow this to happen without firing a shot?
In a meeting between Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping last March, Obama admonished Xi, warning him of serious consequences if China reclaimed the Scarborough Shoal. Following their meeting, China withdrew her ships from the area. Did Obama just draw a red line over Scarborough Shoal? It would seem like it.
An added geopolitical value of a Chinese-occupied — and militarized — Scarborough Shoal is that it would demarcate a triangular area bounded by the Paracel Islands, Spratly Islands, and Scarborough Shoal. This “triangle” would then allow China to impose a “strategic strait” that runs through it; thus, controlling the maritime traffic in the SCS, through which more than $5 trillion of trade moves annually. A great number of this trade goes to Japan and South Korea, treaty allies of the U.S.
It is interesting to note that the U.S. had been vying for the deployment of American forces to Batanes Island and Laoag Airport in Ilocos Norte. If the Duterte administration allows the deployment to these locations, it would counter any attempt by China to reclaim Scarborough Shoal and establish a “strategic strait” in the SCS. These two locations would also provide the U.S. with vantage points to control the choke point at the Luzon Strait; therefore, it would prevent China from extending her naval power into the Second Island Chain, which would put the Philippines’ Benham Rise at risk to Chinese grab.
Benham Rise is a 13-million-hectare undersea landmass in the Philippine Sea, which is about the size of Luzon. The Philippines claims it as part of her continental shelf, which the UNCLOS had approved in 2012. It is rich in minerals and has vast deposits of natural gas hydrates (also called “flammable ice” or “Methane ice”), which could turn the country into a natural gas exporter. Actually, some Japanese and South Korean companies had indicated interest in jointly exploring Benham Rise with the Philippines. It is therefore imperative that the Philippines prevents China from making an entry into the Philippine Sea. We shouldn’t forget what she did to Philippine territories in the SCS. Should the Philippines suffer the same fate as she did in the SCS?
But preventing China from breaking out into the Philippine Sea is one thing; keeping the SCS open to international navigation is another thing. All nations – particularly those in the Indo-Asian Pacific region – have stakes in the SCS. Since the Philippines has the biggest stake, it would be natural for her to launch a diplomatic initiative with China. But she is not alone… and shouldn’t be. All other claimants to the SCS should – nay, must! – be involved in the negotiations. It’s only then that the territorial disputes in the SCS could be settled peacefully – and equitably — and to everybody’s satisfaction… including China.
Yes, the stakes are high, indeed. It’s time to talk; but let’s talk from a position of strength. (PerryDiaz@gmail.com)