Having rejected South China Sea ruling, China must act to lower regional tensions

An aerial photo of Chinese work on Mischief Reef in the South China Sea. Photo: AP

The tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has issued the long-awaited ruling on the case brought by Manila against Beijing in the maritime dispute in the South China Sea.

The arbitration court completely sided with the Philippines, expropriating China's historic rights to the waters within the nine-dash line. It is unbelievable that it ruled all of the sea features in the South China Sea cannot be classified as island, with the biggest island in the Nansha Islands, the Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island, being downgraded to a reef.

In the instant fusillade of criticism, China's government, military and press slammed the ruling as "null" and "unacceptable". The view was echoed by the Taiwanese authorities, which issued an official statement to boycott the arbitration award.

As tensions in the South China Sea will aggravate following the announcement of the ruling, sino-us.com suggests the parties involved should look at the big picture and do the following three things:

First, Beijing should not allow to make itself pushed around by the ruling. China has the historic and legal basis for its sovereignty claims over the South China Sea, which will not be substantially affected by the non-binding ruling. Sticking to its peaceful development strategy, China should keep a level head in the face of the ruling in order not to be caught into a strategic predicament. On the one hand, China should free itself from the international pressure by making the most of propaganda, law and diplomacy; on the other hand, it should calm down domestic nationalists clamoring for a war in the South China Sea by telling them a war will be harmful to both sides.

Second, the US should not take more steps to complicate the already tense situation in the South China Sea, especially the military operations. The US has played a key role in promoting the escalation of the tensions in the South China Sea since 2010, before which the regional disputes did not catch international attention. With the rise of China, the US has shifted its focus to the South China Sea, where the territorial disputes started in the 1970s. The strategic deployment of military forces in the South China Sea by Washington can be traced down to the Monroe doctrine. Bearing this interventionist logic, which serves as the ideological basis for the Asia Pacific rebalancing strategy adopted by the Obama administration, the US is worried that China will see Asia as its sphere of influence with a motive of turning the South China Sea as its own "internal lake".

Although the ruling is non-binding, the US can still use it to label China as a country disregarding international law. Washington will rope its allies in to force China to concede and will agitate other claimants to the South China Sea to follow in the Philippines' footsteps. More worryingly, the US will take the opportunity to "flex its muscle". Hours after the announcement of the ruling, Daniel Kritenbrink, the White House director for Asian affairs, suggested the US government to increase military presence in the Asia Pacific region. In a joint statement, John McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Senator Dan Sullivan welcomed the arbitration award. Sullivan further called on the Obama administration to send Navy assets to contest Chinese territorial claims around their artificial island on the Qimei Reef (Mischief Reef) via a freedom of navigation operation.

The South China Sea is China's core interest, and Beijing has not ruled out the military option, especially with an increased deployment of warships and military aircraft in the region adding to the possibility of military conflicts. Currently, American people care more about the domestic economic issues than launching a war against a nuclear weapons state. From this point of view, it is dangerous for the US to intensify the regional tensions for the time being. If the US takes military action, it will expose its undesirable intent.

Third, China and the Philippines should resume negotiations in a peaceful and diplomatic way at the earliest opportunity to deal with their maritime dispute. The newly elected Philippine president is adopting a pragmatic policy toward the South China Sea dispute, while Chinese President Xi Jinping has asserted that China will not accept any decision made by the arbitration court and that China is committed to resolving the maritime disputes through negotiation and consultation with parties involved based on the respect for historic facts and according to international law. Thus it can be seen that China and the Philippines share a common ground in solving the dispute in a diplomatic way. Besides holding on to the bottom line, the political negotiation with the Philippines will not only help reduce the tensions in the South China Sea, but also will lead other claimants to the region to the negotiating table.

Turning a crisis into an opportunity is China's traditional wisdom. Despite China's rejection of the July 12 ruling, the parties involved can make concrete and feasible efforts to reduce regional tensions with a firm will for peace.

(The article is translated by Ding Yi.)

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