Book Review: Islands and Rocks in the South China Sea: Post-Hague Ruling


July 13, 2017

Book Review: Islands and Rocks in the South China Sea: Post-Hague Ruling

by Philip Bowring

Book Review: Islands and Rocks in the South China Sea: Post-Hague Ruling

The 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration against China on Beijing’s maritime claims to almost the entire South China Sea should have been a seminal event in east Asian history.

Here was an international body rejecting China’s “historic” claims to almost the whole sea and supporting the Exclusive Economic Zone claims of Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei as well as those of the Philippines which had brought the case.

In reality, thus far at least, apart from Vietnam the non-Chinese nations themselves have shown themselves to be less interested in principles and long-term national interest than in diplomatic dances and hints of deal-making with China. One year on, China is as forceful and unapologetic as ever in pressing its imperial claims on the ground.

And the other states, again Vietnam excepted, lack of resolve is a reminder that they are relatively recent creations with little sense of their pre-colonial history and hence limited commitment to more than rhetorical nationalism.

Anyone wanting to see in detail the chasm between the precision and detail of the Court of Arbitration and the woolly-minded responses of so many of the region’s politicians and diplomats should get a copy of this collection of essays edited and with a concise preface by James Borton, an independent journalist and a senior fellow at the US-Asia Institute. They complement Bill Hayton’s excellent work “The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia” which was published in 2014 and provides the most comprehensive coverage of the past history and the evolution of current claims. Borton’s book was the outcome of a workshop held in Nha Trang last August.

Necessarily in such a collection the quality varies but overall it provides a very useful tour of facts and views. There is detailed if dense exposition of the legal foundations of the Court’s decision and its clarification of Article 121(3) of the Law of the Sea Convention. There are well presented arguments from Vietnamese and Philippine experts both on the ruling and in the Vietnam case its national approaches to settlement of sea boundary disputes such as in the Gulf of Thailand.

Japanese, Indians and Koreans look at the ruling in the light of their own issues with China. US and other academics looks at the wider strategic ramifications of the situation.  And contributors from Thailand and Indonesia show how so many find it easier to drone on about ASEAN unity than address the real issues confronting their neighbors.

Malaysian representation is unfortunately lacking in this collection. But perhaps that accurately reflects its determination to close its eyes and focus on collecting Chinese money than defending its seas – especially those most under threat from China lie off Sabah and Sarawak, not the peninsula where the power lies.

The volume also brings attention to the importance of environmental issues and particularly the management of the fast dwindling fish resources on which so many in the littoral states depend for their livelihood. Indeed, in that context the decision of Philippine “populist” President Duterte to set aside the ruling in pursuit of Chinese gold looks bizarre – or just reflects the lack of deep national commitment among some of the region’s political elites.

Philip Bowring is writing a maritime history of the South China Sea. He is a founder and consulting editor to Asia Sentinel.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Islands and Rocks in the South China Sea: Post-Hague Ruling

  1. It is sad to see still no one talks about ‘Haijin’ from a Chinese perspective.
    There is a natural reason why Ming court would decide abandon all that ZhengHe accomplished in one generation. There are also reasons why the Qing dynasty continues the same ‘Haijin’.

    This pendatang Hakka knows this still matters, when he asked for permission to marry his Cantonese wife. Perhaps, there is a reason why my parents would choose to forget to tell me the story. But, there is no reason to suggest Hakka has been running away from the Imperial Beijing for a very long time.

    // https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Clearance
    Hakka dialect speaking communities are thought to have arrived in the Hong Kong area after the rescinding of the coastal evacuation order.[5] Their immigration into the area was assisted by the government after the order was rescinded.[1] The formerly established Punti clans also came back, expanded their ancestral halls, built study halls and set up market towns in Yuen Long, Tai Po and Sheung Shui.[2]

    It is sad to see Malaysian Chinese still could not figure out the difference between an OBOR policy that does good, versus one that attempts to prop up a phony MO1 government. If a Chinese truly loves their nation, they should know that money threw away on 1MDB is doing no good for the people of the great nation.

  2. I’ve always believed that the so-called international law is a freaking joke. It’s what the strong countries use to keep the weak countries in place. Study the history of how the US defied these so-called international laws when it was a rising power, and it still does. The 2016 ruling against Beijing’s maritime claims to the South China Sea was a farce orchestrated by the US and Japan using the Philippines as a front. It’s a joke that any law could deny historical facts. Japan is hoping that this ruling against historical facts could justify its occupation of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. In international relations, the laws of the jungle always rule – might is right.

    The way I see it, the contest for the perceptual domination of the sea lanes in the South China Sea is over. China has won. There’s little its regional opponents and the US can do now. By guile, patience and perseverance, China has inexorably occupied and “militarized” seven supposedly strategic features in the South China Sea. In the process, it’s successfully defied an international arbitration decision as well as its actions against the Philippines and its sovereignty claim, and occupation of four low-tide elevations. More significantly, it’s done so in the face of US challenges and even shows of force in the form of “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPS), as well as protests from other claimants, like Vietnam and the Philippines. The latter was the first to recognize the futility of opposing China there and the benefits of “working with it”. It is likely that ­others – like Brunei and Malaysia – will follow suit. Even Vietnam, ­increasingly the lone and lonely ­opponent, may be coming around. And China has no problem sharing the same claims with Taiwan, as Taiwan is part of China.

    The irony is that the contest has been, and still is, primarily perceptual in nature. No commercial shipping has been affected, despite the constant US concern with “freedom of navigation”, nor is it likely to be in peacetime, given China’s heavy ­dependence on ship-borne trade – about 80% of the trade through the South China Sea is to and from China. Economic and sovereignty interests are commonly cited by western media as the reasons for China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. But China has always maintained it’s no problem sharing the natural resources in the South China Sea with any of the claimant countries. The Pentagon knows better, that China’s main reason is the security of their sea-based nuclear deterrent there. FONOPS is only an excuse for the US to maintain its military presence there, mainly for reconnaissance and checking on the whereabouts and the movements of the Chinese submarines.

    Since the founding of the People’s Republic, China has worried about external threats – and justifiably so. During the Cold War, it faced down both the world’s superpowers, first the US and then the USSR. Both were armed with nuclear weapons at a time when China was still developing its own arsenal. But even after it successfully produced nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, China could not rest easy. It still had to ensure their survivability to create a credible nuclear deterrent. China understood that ballistic missiles based on land would be more vulnerable to preemptive attack than those based under the sea. And the longer they could stay under the sea, the safer they would be. Chinese strategists have envisioned the South China Sea to be a naval bastion, a partially enclosed area where China’s nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) could safely operate underwater for long periods under the protection of friendly air and naval forces, and for their associated submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM).

    To be sure, the South China Sea carries drawbacks as a naval bastion. The biggest is probably the fact that operating there would put China’s SSBNs further from potential targets in the Western Hemisphere, though future SLBMs may have longer ranges. Still, the South China Sea does enable China to disperse more widely its undersea nuclear forces, and thereby improve their survivability. Moreover, its main potential security threat is from the US, not from any other Western countries. Since the South China Sea is so important to the security of China’s sea-based nuclear deterrent, then those who hope that patient economic and diplomatic engagement will persuade China to change its behavior in the region are very likely to be disappointed, as they’ve been to date.

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