By Ralph Jennings
China fumed in July when a world arbitration court said the Communist leadership lacked a legal basis to claim 95% of a resource-rich, strategically valuable sea off its south coast. The international tribunal of the world’s Permanent Court of Arbitration had no jurisdiction to decide sovereignty over the South China Sea, Beijing had said in refusing to join the arbitration filed by the Philippines. China’s foreign minister called the July 12 verdict a “farce.”
Farcical or not, the outcome may ultimately favor China over four Southeast Asian countries that follow world court preferences by claiming just 200 nautical miles (370 km) exclusive economic zones extending from their coasts. Those zones overlap China’s, leading to periodic clashes since the 1970s and a fast escalation of tension since 2012 as China began reclaiming some of the sea’s islets and reinforcing its claims militarily.
The world court ruling has prompted everyone to say let’s sit down and talk so things don’t get worse. Talks would help China. It can leverage a 10 trillion-dollar-plus economy, the world’s second largest, to invest and trade with the smaller Southeast Asian countries, whose leaders in turn would go easy on Beijing when it reclaims land, drills for undersea oil or flies military aircraft. This give-and-take is already happening in Malaysia, which might set an example for the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei. China was Malaysia’s top trading partner and source of direct foreign investment in 2015. Malaysia’s sea claim involves reserves of 5 billion barrels of crude oil and 80 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, more than the other countries, the U.S.Energy Information Administration estimates.
“That would be a model that other countries could adopt,” says Oh Ei Sun, international studies teacher at Singapore Nanyang University. “(China) would like to see other disputants, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, adopt a similar attitude.”
The Philippines is up next, according to widespread predictions. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte sent an envoy to Hong Kong in August to break ice after relations had soured during the world court proceedings. He has also asked the United States, a de facto ally of the South China Sea’s smaller claimants, to quit doing joint sea patrols, though it’s unlikely Washington will actually quit the sea. The Philippines sees upwards of 80,000 Chinese tourists per month and counted China as its second largest trading partner in 2014, with 14% of imports and exports that year. It could use some boosts to roads, railways and ports as it tries to attract manufacturing, and China is good at providing those. That’s the point of Beijing’s “Belt and Road” strategy: send Chinese companies to lesser developed places and build stuff such as ports, railways and roads in exchange for long-term Chinese access to host’s economic and political scene. Southeast Asia is a component of that strategy and consistent with China’s longer-term efforts to help countries there build infrastructure.
Brunei has kept relatively quiet, as the 410,000-population country with a high per capita income would get nothing by riling China — an export market for its oil. Don’t expect a blow up if China passes ships near Brunei’s single South China Sea claim, Louisa Reef in the Spratly Island chain.
Vietnam is a tougher one to please. Resentment of China goes back centuries and people you meet there openly discuss their hostilities today. However, Vietnam buys raw materials from China, its No. 1 importer. China is also the second biggest taker of Vietnamese exports after the United States. This month Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc met to see about easing the maritime dispute and work together on “infrastructure construction, production capacity, trade and investment,” per a report from China’s official Xinhua News Agency.
Tags: ASEAN, Belt and Road, Brunei, Duterte, fishing, infrastructure, Li Keqiang, Louisa Reef, Malaysia, natural resources, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Oh Ei Sun, oil, oil and gas, Permanent Court of Arbitration, Philippines, Ramos, seafood, Singapore Nanyang University, South China Sea, Southeast Asia, Spratly Islands, Taiwan, Vietnam, Vietnamese exports, West Philippine Sea