Clever Chinese will sidestep the Hague verdict

All indications are the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the International Court at the Hague will tomorrow rule for the Philippines with respect to its sea territory encompassed by the Scarborough Shoal forcibly occupied by China. The court is expected to reaffirm the UNCLOS standards and hence the Philippine claims (and logically, also Vietnamese, Malayasian, Brunei-ian claims in that expanse of water) rather than supporting China’s case based on vague historically infirm assertions sourced to the tumultuous civil war period in China. The Arbitration Court will parri passu also rule on the legality of the artificial islands China created literally overnight to buttress its expansive claims and now already put to military use with the installation of radars and other sensor posts.

It is equally certain Beijing will disdainfully dismiss the Court ruling as irrelevant and violative of the understanding it says it has with Manila requiring the resolution of maritime territorial disputes on a strictly bilateral basis. (Shades of the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir here!) What will be significant to see is what the US will do to back the Hague verdict beyond what it is already doing in the South China Sea and, more importantly, how Beijing will react to the US acting as a self-appointed sheriff.

Leading up to the Hague verdict, Washington had sometime back rejected imposition of an ADZ (Air Identification Zone) by China and had warned it’d routinely ignore it. This was followed up by the mounting of freedom of navigation patrols. These were challenges China did not contest. The US Navy then followed up by the US Pacific Command sending three missile destroyers (Sruance, Stethem, Momsen) to aggressively patrol around the Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Island chain (some reefs and other above-water features of which have been expropriated by China). This destroyer flotilla is backed by the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group. The Chinese Navy has responded by conducting some sea drills in the vicinity.

But otherwise China has so far only huffed and it has puffed. The People’s Daily of July 6 questioned the locus standi of the US as an “outsider” interested in using this dispute “as a lever to realize its own strategic objectives” and warned that America’s “pressuring and intimidating ‘brinkmanship’ policy” will lead to an “outcome” it will have to “assume full responsibility for”. China’s intent to safeguard “its national sovereignty and territorial integrity” may be “unshakable” as the Daily put it. The question however is whether Beijing will risk endangering the G-20 Summit it will host in September. It will not.

But, the far-sighted Beijing had apparently already planned for such contingency and a political way out of it. It financed the campaign of Rodrigo Duterte in the general elections in May this year in the Philippines. Duterte is regarded by many as a maverick. The returns for China from this investment are coming in. Manila has already announced it is willing to sit down with Beijing, discuss the Hague judgement in its favour, and arrive at an amicable solution. It will save President Xi, who has engaged his ego in the South China Sea dispute, from actually delivering on China’s threats. Clever, clever, Chinese.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, China, China military, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, Pakistan, South Asia, South East Asia, United States, US., Vietnam, Western militaries. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Clever Chinese will sidestep the Hague verdict

  1. &^%$#@! says:

    Mr Karnad, how do you define “aggressive patrolling”? Would the US risk a serious shooting match with China if push came down to shove? The presences of assets like the USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group etc. haven’t been able to intimidate even Iran, let alone China. IMHO these are meaningless gestures.

  2. Actually, in US naval parlance the ships in the South China Sea are “stalking” the disputed areas by breaching the 12-mile limit in the Spratlys, Mischief Reef, etc. occupied by China. Whether these will turn out to be only empty gestures will depend on how strongly Beijing reacts and in response how the US does, in an action-reaction sequence, and which side, eventually, ends the series by doing nothing or pulling out.

    • &^%$#@! says:

      A peaceful solution that is acceptable to all parties needs to be found. This situation seems to trace it roots back to the days of “Gunboat Diplomacy”, when the colonial powers behaved in the most lawless manner. Today, both sides have potent armaments and in a conflict everybody loses.

  3. &^%$#@! says:

    IMHO in some sense it would be good if China throws the Court verdict into the dustbin, and pursues a bilateral solution with the Philippines. This route could be used by external vested interests, some of which possess immense influence in the International Court, to unlawfully and needlessly interfere in Kashmir.

  4. andy says:

    The USA has not even ratified the UNCLOS,though China and the Philippines have.So how can they insist on China abiding by any ruling when they are not even part of 167 countries that have ratified the same?If the other 166 countries united and send a tough message to China regarding the ruling I think it would carry more weight with the Chinese rather than the USA lecturing them.

  5. andy says:

    One really doesn’t know what to say after reading the following, disastrous is the word that comes to mind.

  6. andy says:

    On April 19 the Chinese embassy in new Delhi invited various think tanks,gist of the whole program was the chinese willingness to accommodate New Delhi on the Mc mahon line if india supported Beijing on the south china sea issue,the officiating Ambassador in his closing remarks said “in future some one could contest India’s sovereignty of Andaman islands”.

    The legendary Chinese Admiral Zhang He who opened up the silk route by crossing Mallaca straits into Indian ocean many times during 1405 to 1433 visited the Andaman islands ,also died en voyage and was buried at sea of the Kozhikode coast.

    Maybe this could be their future course of action contesting the Andaman islands using vague historical claims.

  7. Venkat says:

    Such a behaviour usually expected off Banana republics. It is just Chinese, but the countries they back that are of concern. Hopefully slowly they will tie themselves in knots.

  8. sanman says:

    Unlike the USA, the naval ambitions of China are naturally boxed in by its neighbors. I was stunned to learn how non-existent the Philippines’ navy is – how does such a populous nation live with itself? These people should have never kicked out the US Navy – they’re now ruing the results, and are quickly backpedaling to bring the Americans back in. But I see Indonesia as a sleeping giant which could easily do more to assert itself against any Chinese encroachment. I was surprised to see the Chinese foolishly poking the Indonesians near the distant Natuna Islands – this has only begun to arouse Indonesian hostility towards China’s high-handedness. All these private boat militias (aka “little blue men”) which China has been sending out to fish in troubled waters like Taliban-of-the-seas, are only going to increase the chances of stirring up serious incidents. As privateers, they are more likely to behave with indiscipline and sooner or later they’re going to kill somebody. Perhaps Philippines needs to borrow a page from Iran and use fast speed-boats to play cat-and-mouse with the Chinese Navy. Or else they look at India’s success with its Osa missile boats in the Indo-Pak wars, since such smaller ships could certainly threaten China’s tiny reef-bases. Why don’t we Indians just sell them our second-hand Osas?

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