- Case is first legal challenge in South China Sea dispute
- Region is rich in oil, gas and an important fishing ground
- China has boycotted Philippines’ case. Five countries have territorial claims in region
It’s rare that a judicial technical ruling on esoteric maritime claims holds such global geo-political significance. The International Court of Arbitration “award” (verdict) on Philippines’ case against China’s claims in the South China Sea could have consequences far beyond the two countries.
India will be watching the ruling carefully, because it would have implications for India’s security and economic interests. Vice Admiral Pradeep Chauhan said India has a range of interests in this region like “creation of a ‘blue’ ocean economy including protection of offshore infrastructure and maritime resources, safety of trade and sea lanes of communication and a regionally favourable geostrategic maritime-position.”
The reason for the bated breath anticipation is this: if the ruling goes against China, as many have speculated, what will China do ? How will India and US respond? What does it mean for the balance of power in Asia and the world?
Tiny Philippines in 2013 challenged China’s claims on 15 counts, saying China’s actions were against international law. This came after China became increasingly belligerent over Scarborough Shoal, which Philippines claims . If the court rules even partially in Philippines’ favour, it would be a blow to China’s massive reclamation activities in the South China Sea.
Philippines has questioned the validity of China’s ‘9-DashLine’ through which China claims almost 90% of the South China Sea. It has also challenged China’s constructions on so me of the rocks and land features in the sea, asking the court to define them as “low tide elevations”, “rocks” or “islands” each of which have different implications in terms of EEZ.
China has flailed about, first refusing to accept the jurisdiction, then threatening other countries, invoking an opt-out clause. In recent weeks, China has been on a PR binge securing thumbs up votes from countries like Serbia and Lesotho. It has also warned US from “meddling” blaming it for the tensions. In a Peoples Daily commentary last week, China drew a “bottom line”. “The South China Sea was not an issue between China and the US to begin with. However, … US, as an outsider, uses the South China Sea as a lever to realise its own strategic objectives. The US will have to assume full responsibility for the further ten sions in the South China Sea that may arise. … for China, safeguarding its national sovereignty and territorial integrity is unshakable.”
Philippines’ new President, Rodrigo Duterte has been more conciliatory, offering to “share” South China Sea.
What happens after:
It is likely the ruling will be a mixed one filled with technical jargon, so everybody can go back with some victories and potential conflict will be averted. But if it goes against China, It could declare an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) on South China Sea which would be provocative. It could forcefully occupy Scarborough Shoal, which might invite US involvement. Or it could accept the verdict, as India did vis-a-vis Bangladesh, but that seems unlikely if its unfavourable.