BEIJING: China has intensified the drumbeat of its opposition to an international tribunal’s ruling expected on Tuesday that could threaten its expansive claims in the South China Sea.
How Beijing responds to the ruling in the case filed by US ally the Philippines could chart the course of global power relations in an increasingly dangerous hotspot. It comes as the US has ramped up its military presence in the region and could seek to marshal world opinion to pressure Beijing into complying with the verdict.
A new Philippine leader who appears friendlier to Beijing could also influence the aftermath of the ruling. The Hague-based tribunal will decide on the 2013 case that challenges the so-called nine-dash line that China uses to claim virtually the entire South China Sea and which Manila opposes because it infringes upon its own 200-mile exclusive economic zone. The dispute centres on waters through which an estimated $5 trillion in global trade passes through each year and are home to rich fishing stocks and a potential wealth of oil, gas and other resources. The Philippines has also asked the tribunal to rule on whether several disputed areas are outcrops, reefs or islands, a move aimed at clarifying the extent of territorial waters they are entitled to or if they can project exclusive economic zones. More than merely about the sovereignty over the rocks and reefs or the actual waters, the South China Sea dispute has become a testing ground for a rising China to challenge the US’s leadership in the Asian strategic order, analysts say. Beijing wants to use this dispute to show how “China’s own growing maritime power and its economic significance to the United States and the global economy have reached the point where the United States can no longer afford to stand up to China,” said Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at The Australian National University.
“That calculation might prove to be wrong.” China has boycotted the case, arguing that the tribunal has no jurisdiction and saying it won’t accept the ruling. It has insisted that bilateral talks between Beijing and other claimants is the only way to address the dispute. Some experts have speculated that China could respond to an unfavourable ruling by establishing an air defence identification zone over all or part of the South China Sea.
There is similar speculation that China might militarise a reef off the Philippine coast, the Scarborough Shoal, where a standoff with China prompted the Philippines to initiate the tribunal case in 2013. Beijing has given no direct indication of a tougher response, saying it remains committed to bilateral negotiations with Manila.
Tuesday’s ruling might further pressure China to clarify what exactly it is claiming with its “nine-dash line” boundary. Findings of the tribunal are binding on the parties, including China. But the court — without police or military forces or a system of sanctions at its disposal — can’t enforce its ruling, so its potential impact remains unclear. Still, in recent weeks, China has spared no effort to denounce the proceedings as unlawful, publishing state media commentaries and deploying senior military officers, current and former top officials and academics to relentlessly convey Beijing’s opposition.