As China refuses to acknowledge official court ruling asking that it relinquish its claim over the South China Sea, some view this as an opportunity for gain, while others fear losses


‘China, hands off the Philippines’, the Filipinos voiced their protests regarding the South China Sea dispute in early July.

For a long time, Asian littoral states have been scrambling for the South China Sea, an ocean rich in energy resources. Among others, Scarborough Shoal sparked off the conflict as both China and the Philippines lay territorial claims over it. After the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague denied China’s request, the conflict escalated. As minor as it may seem, the dispute goes beyond a mere bilateral conflict and implicates other Asian countries as well as the United States.

The Scarborough Shoal dispute dates back to April 2012. When Filipino fishermen set sail for Scarborough Shoal, Chinese armed vessels intercepted them in the name of ‘protecting fishermen’ in home waters. The Government of the Philippines sent their warships to the island. After a month of stalemate, the Chinese pushed them back and took control of the island.

In January 2013, then President Benigno Aquino III appealed to the international tribunal, citing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). For one thing, the Philippines asked the court to decide if China’s claim over the South China Sea had any legal basis. For another, it sought a clarification on whether these occupied islands were ‘reefs’ or ‘islands’ — something that determines if these countries are entitled to the privileges of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which stretches to 200 nautical metres from the coast. To no one’s surprise, the court ruled that China’s historical claim to the South China Sea had ‘no legal basis’.

If the judgement aimed to bring lasting peace, it has failed catastrophically. From the outset, China cried foul, resenting the court’s ruling. According to Chinese diplomat Hong Lei, China would not ‘accept, recognize or execute’ the court’s decision. In Washington, former Chinese envoy Dai Bingguo agreed and dismissed the judgement as ‘nothing more than a piece of scrap paper.

To the Chinese, Scarborough Shoal stores rich hydrocarbon reserves. Claiming the land for itself will guarantee the country prodigious maritime resources. Any form of ruling will therefore dwarf China’s potential economic benefits. Accordingly, the Chinese Government orchestrated a military exercise near the Paracel Islands from July 5th to July 11th. It deployed a flotilla of naval ships, testing over 100 missiles in the region. Dai Bingguo further emphasised that, ‘China has taken action only as a compelled response at a minimal level, towards unbridled encroachments by certain countries [infringing] on China’s rights and interests’.

At its heart, the judgement threatens stability in the region given that the case challenges China’s sovereignty in the coastal area. To China and the United States, the South China Sea has long been the focal point for strategic rivalry. Since 2008, the Obama administration has opted for a ‘return-to-Asia’ strategy, pivoting from the Middle East to Asia. Gradually, the United States has strengthened relations with its Asian allies, including the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan. The court’s decision shatters China’s legal grounding in the region and creates a power vacuum. Hence, the United States has taken this opportunity to exercise its ‘freedom of navigation’, showcasing its military supremacy. In April 2016, the United States collaborated with the Philippines for a joint military exercise. Arguably, the South China Sea dispute fortifies the United States’ forward presence in the region, leaving behind a rocky relationship between itself and China.

The verdict, clearly, drags Taiwan into the conflict. The court judged that Taiping Island, Taiwan’s long-held island, is a ‘reef’. ‘We will never accept [this decision]’, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen stressed. According to Article 121 in UNCLOS, Taiping Island meets the definition of an ‘island’. Firstly, Taiping Island ranks as the largest naturally-occurring landmass in the Spratly Islands. There are five households units on this island, consuming readily-available fresh water. Also, Taiwan has kept developing the island since 1947, when the Japanese handed this island over to Taiwan. Shortly after the announcement, Taiwan dispatched two maritime vessels to Taiping Island. Consequently, the dispute heightens the tensions between Taiwan and other Asian countries, aggravating the situation surrounding the South China Sea.

Plausibly, the court’s decision upsets Japan, too. Although Japan has little share in the South China Sea, the judgement affects the privilege it earns from Okinotorishima, an uninhabited atoll in the East China Sea. Its relative smallness means that Okinotorishima can only be seen when the tide ebbs away. If Taiping Island is only a ‘reef’ however, Okinotorishima could never be defined as an island. Although the decision only concerns the islands in the South China Sea, it certainly weakens Japan’s claim on Okinotorishima and the accompanying EEZ. This court case might also serve as a precedent for the Diaoyu Islands controversy, or Senkaku Islands in Japanese. Inevitably, the dispute has drawn Japan into this multinational rivalry as well.

Due to conflicting economic and political interests in the South China Sea, various countries have become entangled in the Scarborough Shoal dispute. A seemingly bilateral conflict therefore, has evolved into a multinational rivalry. Although this dispute takes place in Asia, the same conflict can happen in Europe. With rich natural resources in abundance, the next source of controversy could be Norway, Denmark, Russia and the Arctic.





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