Tuesday 2 August, 2016 Update: South China Sea News

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The People’s Republic of China’s latest responses to an arbitration court in the Hague’s ruling last month came in the form of a salvo. From diplomatic and legal declarations in Beijing to military exercises at sea, China is making a determined effort to counter the ruling, render it insignificant and establish its dominance in the seas around China.

It began on Monday with a live-fire exercise in the East China Sea. The political purpose of the exercise was to highlight Beijing’s determination to defend its sovereignty claims with military force if a situation requires. A statement released before the exercises officially described them in a practical, but somewhat alarming manner. “An information technology-based war at sea is sudden, cruel and short, which requires fast transition to combat status, quick preparation and high assault efficiency.”  The exercises included missile and torpedo firings, coordinated tactical maneuverings and the use of electronic warfare assets. Units from all of China’s fleets, naval aviation and coast guard took part. Although it was held in the East China Sea, the message was clear: China will use military power to defend its possessions.

The next moves came on Tuesday when China’s Supreme Court warned that illegal fishing in Chinese territorial waters could carry the penalty of a one-year imprisonment. The court defined those waters as including China’s exclusive economic zones. The South China Sea or the Hague ruling were not mentioned in the judicial interpretation. In fact, the court declared that Chinese holdings in the Spratly Islands are not entitled to an exclusive economic zone. That being said, the implications made by the court are clearly geared towards the South China Sea.

Shortly after the judicial interpretation was released, China’s defense minister General Chang Wanquan warned of offshore security threats and called for preparations for a ‘People’s war at sea” to safeguard China’s national sovereignty. Wanquan’s comments can be dismissed as political saber-rattling that will amount to nothing. The timing of the comments, along with the other Chinese activity suggest that it could be more significant though. Beijing is making a calculated effort to increase tensions in the region with the G20 meeting coming to China in early September.

Tuesday 12 July, 2016 Update: Tribunal Rules in South China Sea Case

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After a long wait the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) has delivered its ruling on China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. The PCA has ruled that there is no legal basis to the claims and no evidence that China had exercised exclusive control over the South China Sea  (SCS) waters or resources. From an international law vantage point, the ruling invalidates China’s nine-dash line, the geographic boundary line that Beijing affixed to its SCS claims back in 1949. The PCA announced that it has also found that China violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines’ in the SCS by interfering with its fishing and petroleum exploration.

As expected, Beijing has labeled the ruling as ‘ill-founded’ and claimed that China will not be bound by it. “China’s territorial sovereignty and marine rights in the South China Sea will not be affected by the so-called Philippines South China Sea ruling in any way,” Chinese President Xi Jinping has stated.

The reaction from other nations in the region has been more measured. Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida called the decision ‘legally binding’ and urged all parties to comply. Vietnam is pleased with the PCA’s decision and has publicly said so, while also reasserting its own territorial claims. Manila has been strangely quiet, with the Philippine government welcoming the decision as ‘significant’ while also urging ‘all those concerned’ to ‘exercise restraint and sobriety.’ Many Filipinos believe that President Duterte may have received assurances of Chinese investment in exchange for a muted response from Manila.

The United States has reacted by urging all parties to avoid inflammatory and provocative statements or action to the ruling.

The predominant question at the moment is: How will China respond? Despite Beijing’s lack of interest in the PCA’s decision, the ruling is seen as humiliating and a loss of face. China lost on every point in the ruling and it will be difficult, if not impossible for China to do nothing. In September, the G20 summit meeting will be held in China. Does Beijing have the composure to wait until after the summit before taking action in the SCS?

Tuesday 21 June, 2016 Update: South China Sea

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The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is expected to hand down its ruling in the Philippines case against the People’s Republic of China regarding the PRC’s claims in the South China Sea any day now. Regardless of which way the decision goes, it will have far reaching consequences for the entire region. It can potentially resolve some of the key issues at the center of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, or bring about an increase of tensions between the US and China. Ahead of the decision, Beijing, and Washington have been jockeying for position.

China refuses to recognize the court proceedings and has stated it will not be bound by any decision the court makes. China has been amassing support for its position, claiming to have the backing of sixty nations. Beijing is also continuing to assert itself at sea while the court finalizes its ruling. On Friday, Chinese fishing boats violated Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone off of the Natuna Islands. Indonesian naval vessels fired warning shots and held the crew of one of the fishing boats. China claims the boats were in its traditional fishing grounds. It is the third such incident between China and Indonesia since March.

The United States has been on its own diplomatic offensive in the region, establishing the foundation for what it hopes will be a unified international response to the court’s decision. Washington’s intent is to render the “nine-dash” line invalid. Beijing has used the obscure marker to claim the bulk of the South China Sea as territorial waters. US actions in the region have not been confined to the diplomatic arena. Over the past weekend, a joint training operation including two carrier strike groups was conducted in the Philippine Sea. The arrival and presence of a large number of US warships in the area served as reassurance for America’s allies in the region and a message of deterrence for any nation intent on destabilizing the area.

Clearly, the exercise served as a warning shot across Beijing’s bow. An unsubtle reminder there will be consequences for any action it takes following the ruling in The Hague.