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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.

And dangerous.

(Republished from China Matters by permission of author or representative)
 
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  1. Joe Wong says:

    The USA and Japan are declining and their presence in the South China Sea is waning due to their excessive greed, with a mindset belonging to the past, stalled in the old days colonialism and constrained by the zero-sum cold war mentality. Both of them have nothing constructive to offer to the growth of peace and prosperity in the SCS which has been growing leaps and bounds on the coattail of China’s peaceful rise.

    To prevent the SCS region becoming the next centre of prosperity the USA and Japan are doing all they can to destroy the cooperation between the nations in the SCS region by creating chaos and inserting wedges between the nations in the SCS in the hope to drag the SCS region back to the old days of imperialist colonialism when they dominated and exploited the SCS region with barbarism; the PCA Kangaroo court Kabuki show is just one of the wedges the American and Japanese inserted to rock the cooperation boat between the SCS nations.

    The only way to protect the peace and prosperity of the SCS region is to have a strong deterrence against the USA and Japan’s misdemeanors in the SCS. Turning the Scarborough Shoal into a man-made island with 10,000ft airstrip that will make the Americans in the bases in the Philippines to wake up with cold sweat every day is a good start to make the American and Japanese behave in the SCS, so that the nations in the SCS can focus their energy on nation building.

  2. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    I agree that it was bad idea for China to build up reefs within 200 miles of the Philippines. They’ve got every right to reclaim islands in the open sea. The right of homesteading should apply to countries, too.

  3. 5371 says:

    International law is like hot ice or dry water, and rulings like this are just scraps of paper.

  4. well, I think the china hawks in the usa and the usa hawks in china are all itching for a confrontation. I have mostly cleared my bucket list, just a few things left.

    have at it, let the nukes fly. when chinese and american cities are nothing but nuclear ruins, maybe then the people will kill the ones who pushed the buttons. there is a high chance they will not. too stupid, literally.

    I think I should move out of the major city I live in, higher chance of survival.

  5. forgot to asked this.

    Q: why would china care about hague or it’s court rulings? why not act like the usa and give the middle finger whenever these courts ruled against usa?

    personally I thought china was doing exactly that, telling the court in hague to F it self 🙂

  6. Rob89 says:

    Firstly, when the United States ignored the ICJ’s ruling against it in 1986, in the case of Nicaragua v United States, was Uncle Sam labeled an international outlaw? No.

    When the US senate refused to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Unclos, was the US labeled as an international outlaw? No? Why should China be so labeled for ignoring a politically-motivated ruling by an arbitral tribunal that has exceeded its powers?

    That the tribunal did not take into consideration that Japan had returned the Paracel and Spratly islands to the ROC on 28 April 1952, in accordance with the Treaty of Peace after WW2 and the terms of the 1945 Potsdam Declaration and declared that many of the islands in the Spratly are in the EEZ of the Philippines, is a gross travesty of justice. See Article 2 here:

    http://www.taiwandocuments.org/taipei01.htm

    The tribunal also closed a blind eye on the universally-known fact that President Ferdinand Marcos illegally annexed 8 features in China’s Spratly islands by issuing a Presidential decree in November 1978, an act which, without a doubt, violated the UN Charter.

    When the Philippines was granted its independence in July 1946, no island in the Spratly was handed to the Philippines by the US.

    Former colonial masters, Spain and the United States agreed in the 1898 Treaty of Paris that the outer-most western maritime boundary of the Philippine territory is 118 degree East longitude.

    The problem is that all the Spratly islands in the South China Sea are west of that 118 degree East longitude.

    Perhaps, the most controversial ruling made by the politically-motivated tribunal is that Taiping island or Itu Aba is a rock under Article 121 (3) of Unclos. This is a poor judgement.

    A Professor of the University of Virginia, Myron Nordquist said at the Public International Law Colloquium on Maritime Dispute Settlement, in Hong Kong on July 15 that the arbitral tribunal has made a “huge mistake”.

    He questioned the tribunal’s conclusion that Taiping Island is a “rock” rather than an island.

    In reality Taiping Island is a naturally-formed island with about 48 ha in area and it can sustain economic activity under Article 121 (3) of Unclos, as it is the biggest land mass in the Spratly and is the only island with fresh water.

    The facilities there include a runway, harbor and marine research center, office and residential buildings, a hospital, café, markets, farming and fishing activities and about 200 people living on it. Check out the size of the island here:

    http://english.cri.cn/12394/2016/06/03/3441s929762.htm

    The Philippine’s legal team lied that Taiping Island or Itu Aba is a rock and therefore is not entitled to a 200nm EEZ, that will stretch to the coast of the Palawan island and validate the existence of at least two dash lines there, if the delimitation of maritime boundary is agreed with both China and the Philippines in the future.

    The politically-motivated tribunal, without the courtesy of even verifying the facts from Taiwan, which has sovereignty over Taiping island, made a unilateral proclamation that it is a rock.

    So overnight, with any legal precedence, Taiwan’s Taiping Island lost its 200 nm EEZ without due process and is now limited to 12 nm of territorial sea. The Taiwan govt does not recognize the ruling.

    The fishermen in Taiwan are furious and are planning to sail to Taiping Island or Itu Aba to protect their rights. Taiwan’s coastguard ships are sure to follow, raising tension, which a tribunal is supposed to solve.

    http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/taiwan/archives/2016/07/18/2003651284

  7. denk says:

    im a rock and im an island…………

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