As relatively muted reactions to the Philippines v. China arbitral tribunal award come in from ASEAN and EU, it appears likely that the PRC at the highest level traded an undertaking to finally abandon the nine-dash-line in return for international forbearance on declaration of China as an international outlaw for ignoring the ruling.
I suspect the PRC pitch involved, Let’s keep things civil at least until China is done hosting the G20 meeting in Hangzhou in December.
I’m guessing the Obama administration went along, to a point.
It’s not going to be easy for the PRC to wangle any face-saving agreements from its neighbors because, as I write in my Asia Times piece , Scorched Earth Ruling on S China Sea, the tribunal left basically zero for the PRC to work with.
Xi Jinping’s going to have his plate pretty full, not only with the daunting diplomatic challenge but also, I guess, the prospect that this will weaken him politically at a rather difficult juncture in his term of office.
Something of a dilemma for the PRC’s neighbors as well, whose options are pretty much narrowed to “claim the EEZ rights the tribunal UNCLOS has given you and endure PRC retaliation in return” or “wheel and deal with PRC and face patriotic anger” or, in the case of the Philippines’ President Duterte, worse. Worse being the threat of impeachment already issued by the pro-US and China-hawk factions in Manila if he is deemed to violate Philippine sovereignty in working out a modus vivendi with the PRC.
Good news for the PRC’s zero sum strategic competitors, US and Japan, as I write over at AT:
I am not an adherent to the “South China Sea” = “China’s Sudetenland”–or “China’s Sudetenzee” for you German speakers—i.e. a springboard for aggression and conquest. The PRC, in my opinion, hoped to leverage its South China Sea claims in order to wean the Philippines from the United States and Finlandize Vietnam in order to strengthen a ring of sympathetic states around the South China Sea.
This sort of vassalage is anathema to the US and China-hawk and pro-US elements in South East Asia, and the UNCLOS ruling is an important step in efforts to cripple the PRC as a positive and significant economic force—and supplier of attractive economic-friendly “security goods” like lighthouses, coast guard fleets, and so on—in the South China Sea.
In other words, the whole South China Sea megillah, in my opinion, is about rolling back the PRC’s influence in Southeast Asia by limiting the geopolitical leverage it might have obtained from being the big guy in the SCS.
Game not over, but it appears likely that the PRC’s influence down thataway has peaked and its efforts will move the other way: trying to prevent the US from playing the same game in the other direction and tilting the various powers down there in a pro-US/anti-China direction.
Gonna be tough.
The pivot dynamic is favored by confrontation and polarization, and the UNCLOS ruling provides plenty of opportunity for that as the Philippines and everybody else study how to exploit the PRC’s vulnerability and claim their EEZ rights. Japan may also add some gasoline to the fire by pursuing UNCLOS arbitration over a gas field development beef in the East China Sea.
There’s also a nice opportunity for a regional war in the mix, thanks to the PRC’s apparently ill-conceived move to island-build Mischief Reef and Subi Reef on top of non-LTE features. Per the UNCLOS ruling, these are now illegal man-made structures inside the Philippines EEZ and the Philippines is within its right to demand that the PRC vacate them.
If the Philippines seized those structures and the PRC tried to get them back, I think that would probably trigger the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty. The MDT is intentionally sketch on backing the Philippines in offensive operation outside its sovereign territory, but it does stipulate that the US will come to the defense of Philippine forces under attack.
And, quite frankly, in the current atmosphere the US might be happy to fudge interpretation of events and the MDT enough to intercede on behalf of a Philippine expeditionary force if it made a play and encountered PRC resistance.
The China hawks are already fleshing out these scenarios in consultation with their allies in the Manila establishment, I expect.
So, as I wrote over at AT, the PRC isn’t leaving the SCS…but the job of staying there just got a lot harder and more expensive.