On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the Hague delivered its long-awaited verdict on China’s claims to sovereignty over outcrops in the South China Sea (SCS).
According to the PCA, the vaguely defined “nine dash line” upon which Beijing depends heavily to justify its claims is worthless, as it has neither legal nor historic justification.
This ruling, which amounted to a stark and unambiguous rejection of Chinese claims, was not wholly unexpected, but has nevertheless caused a rise in regional tensions.
The small “islands” which dot the SCS are not recognised as such by the PCA, as they can support neither habitation, nor economic activity, without indefinite outside support. In its view, they are "rocks", and no nation can claim an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in waters surrounding such features.
China was strongly criticised by the PCA for causing severe environmental damage to the seven of these “rocks” upon which it has been constructing base facilities, and for the illegal harassment of fishing vessels operating in the SCS.
The ruling also confirmed that other regional claimant nations which border the sea are entitled to claim EEZs within the SCS.
Beijing has for months been publicly challenging the authority and impartiality of the PCA, and, unsurprisingly, poured scorn on its findings. Both senior government figures, and the official Chinese media, harshly rejected the verdict, asserting that China has every right to continue to pursue its claims.
Also professing deep misgivings are the Taiwanese, who control the centrally located, politically important, and relatively large SCS outcrop of Taiping (Itu Aba).
Taipei was, in fact, first out of the blocks with a visible response. On the day that the PCA verdict was announced, the Republic of China Navy frigate ‘Kang Ding’, and the Taiwan Coast Guard Administration patrol ship ‘Wei Hsing’ were sent, amid a blaze of publicity, to patrol the waters around Taiping.
So, what might the future hold for the SCS, with its vital seaways, and copious natural resources?
Experienced regional analysts believe that Beijing will moderate its rhetoric, but will continue to pursue its objectives, while offering incentives to rival claimant nations to engage in “divide and rule” bilateral discussions.
It is most unlikely that the Chinese, who, just before the verdict was announced, carried out major naval exercises in the SCS, off the now heavily-fortified Paracel Islands, will reduce their maritime presence.
Maritime forces of nations strongly opposed to Chinese domination of the SCS, meanwhile, continue to grow in size and capability.
The Vietnam People’s Navy, which has grown over the past decade into a force to be reckoned with, continues to add indigenously built missile corvettes, and Russian-built frigates and submarines to its inventory, at a blistering pace. The Vietnam Coast Guard meanwhile has at least ten large patrol ships on order.
A fourth helicopter-equipped ex-US Coast Guard helicopter-capable ‘Hamilton’ cutter has reportedly been earmarked for the Philippine Navy, which very recently commissioned the first of two new and very capable strategic support vessels. Also, the Philippine Coast Guard recently received the first of ten new Japanese-built patrol ships.
Tokyo is keeping a close eye on the SCS, which is a vital conduit for Japan’s oil supplies, and on the eve of the PCA ruling, the Japan Coast Guard patrol ship ‘Tsugaru’ arrived in Manila to take part in a series of exercises with Philippine forces.
Regional naval power India, for its part, now has considerable focus on the SCS, and recently deployed a powerful task group there, with a remit which included port visits, and exercises with regional navies.
Washington, furthermore, continues to build up its forces in the region, and to exercise freedom of navigation in SCS, and has re-established a quasi-permanent military presence in Philippines, by virtue of the Manila-Washington Enhanced Defence Co-operation Agreement. This arrangement facilitates long term access by US land, sea and air forces to eight Philippine Armed Forces installations.
The Australian government is coming under some domestic political pressure to assume a proactive role in the SCS, while in a new development, the EU recently hinted that it would consider sending units into the SCS to help secure freedom of navigation for international shipping.
The PCA ruling, and the support evinced by other nations, have undoubtedly boosted the confidence of China’s rival claimants in the SCS. The ruling does not mandate long term solutions to competing sovereignty claims, though, and the scene therefore seems set for a probable uptick in confrontations in the medium to long term.
A major unknown, however, is the extent to which the Philippines’ newly elected, untested, President Duterte will be prepared to push Manila’s case.