June 14, 2016
South China Sea dispute: where the world stands
A case brought by the Philippines against China represents a diplomatic dilemma for far-flung nations as Washington and Beijing rally support for their respective positions on the use of international arbitration in South China Sea disputes.
The United States has been building diplomatic pressure in the West and in Asia on China to abide by the Hague-based tribunal’s decision, which is expected soon. China, which maintains it won’t be bound by the ruling, has been pushing back by building support from nations mostly in Africa and the Mideast.
The US is not a party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, under which the tribunal has been constituted, but says it wants China to play by international rules. Since there is no enforcement mechanism for the ruling, any impact will depend on how the international community reacts.
Here’s a look at where dozens of countries stand:
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
ASEAN has been trying for years to achieve diplomatic solutions in the South China Sea, making little progress and exposing divisions in the 10-member bloc, which includes the Philippines. Reaching consensus on the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling will be tough.
When President Barack Obama met ASEAN leaders in February they agreed on “full respect for legal and diplomatic processes” in accordance with the UN convention, but pro-China members Cambodia and Laos nixed any mention of “arbitration.”
Vietnam, which has fought China over competing South China Sea claims, has been most supportive of the Philippines’ case and submitted a statement to the tribunal. Hanoi has said it supports “full compliance” to the procedures of the convention.
But other ASEAN nations are generally wary of speaking out for fear of alienating China, the region’s economic heavyweight. Malaysia and Brunei have said little about the case, though they too are South China Sea claimants.
Indonesia and Singapore are not claimants but have been a bit more outspoken. Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said last week that the ruling could have implications beyond the South China Sea and “we cannot subscribe to the principle that might is right.” Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry declined to say whether the ruling should be binding on both sides but said international law must be respected.
Even the Philippines’ position is unpredictable as a new government takes office there June 30. President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has expressed willingness to restart bilateral negotiations with China.
Moscow, which shares China’s suspicion of Washington, is Beijing’s most prominent supporter on the issue. On a visit to China in April, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia is against any interference from outside parties in the South China Sea – a reference to the US – “or any attempts to internationalise these disputes.” Like China, Russia says disputes should be resolved through talks between the parties directly involved.
China supporters In Africa, Mideast
China’s state news agency Xinhua on May 20 said that more than 40 countries have expressed support for China’s stance on the arbitration case. The Foreign Ministry has in recent weeks given prominent mention to support it claims to have from nations principally in Africa, the Mideast and Central Asia. But few of those foreign governments have issued statements independently. Some, including Cambodia, Laos and Fiji, have disavowed China’s description of their position.
Experts at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said they could confirm official statements from Afghanistan, Gambia, Niger, Sudan and Vanuatu. A Chinese statement with the 21-member Arab League supported China but it was unclear if it represented all the parties’ official positions.
European Union and G-7
The EU has urged all South China Sea claimants to resolve disputes through peaceful means and “pursue them in accordance with international law,” including the UN convention. The Group of Seven wealthy nations, which comprises Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the US and the EU, has called on all states to fully implement decisions binding on them in courts and tribunals provided under the convention.
In June, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian proposed that European navies coordinate patrols in Asian waters to reinforce a rules-based maritime order. He warned that if the laws of the sea are not respected in that region, they could also be challenged in the Arctic Ocean or Mediterranean Sea.
In January, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the China-Philippines ruling will be “extremely important” as a statement of international principle and will “settle once and for all” whether artificial reefs are entitled to territorial waters. But Australia has been less outspoken in support of arbitration than the US, perhaps mindful of Australia’s own resistance to arbitration to resolve its disputed maritime border with tiny East Timor.
India has not issued a categorical position on arbitration case, but has been broadly supportive of the application of international law. India shares US concerns about Beijing’s rising ambitions in the seas of Asia.
India’s External Affairs Ministry says that “all countries must abide by international law and norms on maritime issues.” India set an example in 2014 when it accepted a decision by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration that ruled in favour of Bangladesh in a dispute over the countries’ maritime boundary.
Japan was an early supporter of the Philippines’ pursuit of arbitration and says both China and the Philippines should abide by the outcome. Japan sees that as upholding international law, but it also reflects concern that historic rival China seeks strategic control of vital sea lanes in the South China Sea that carry 80 per cent of Japan’s crude oil imports.
Japan’s support of third-party dispute resolution is not universal. While it has sought to take its dispute with South Korea over the South Korean-held Dokdo or Takeshima islands to the International Court of Justice, it says no such action is needed in its dispute with China over the Senkaku or Diaoyu islands, which are administered by Japan.
Like Japan, South Korea is heavily dependent on fuel imports that pass through the South China Sea, but it has closer ties with China and has been less inclined to speak out. The Foreign Ministry says South China Sea disputes should be resolved under internationally established regulations and that it is “looking with interest” at the Philippine-China arbitration case.
Taiwan has complained that the tribunal has not solicited its views. While Taipei officially exercises the same nine-dash line claim as Beijing in the South China Sea, it is primarily concerned about Taiping island in the Spratlys. Taiwan administers that remote land feature and is concerned it could be designated as a rock without the rights granted to islands.