“Leave it to the United States to put teeth into the tribunal’s finding”

A piece in Foreign Policy discusses US-Sino relations in the South China Sea, “Beijing has raised the stakes in a showdown with the United States that is about to grow even more tense with the approach of a crucial legal milestone in the increasingly heated territorial dispute. China’s tough tactics are forcing the United States to decide whether to push back aggressively — even if it risks a military confrontation — or sit back and let Beijing continue to slowly but surely dismantle an international order that cemented 70 years of peace and prosperity in Asia”.

This choice is of course quite binary and the Obama administration has had plenty of chances to show its mettle against China and its vastly increased territorial expansion, some have been successful while others have been a disaster.

The piece goes on “This spring, an international tribunal in The Hague will rule for the first time on the validity of China’s territorial claims, encapsulated in an expansive “nine-dash line” that seeks to fence off nearly the entire South China Sea for Beijing. The new deployment of the long-range, surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island, as confirmed by Taiwan’s defence ministry Wednesday, has only underscored the importance of the pending court decision, pitting might against right in the starkest possible terms. Experts believe the tribunal likely will rule in favour of the Philippines, which brought the suit in 2013 to forestall Chinese occupation of reefs, rocks, and atolls that both countries claim. That will compel both Washington and Beijing to make a choice: The United States will have to decide whether, and by how much, to enforce the ruling with the gray hulls of the U.S. Navy. And China, which has refused to take part in the arbitration case, faces an acid test of its self-proclaimed commitment to upholding the international order that has paved its own rise from economic weakling to world power in a generation. The tribunal’s decision will mark the next turning point in the contest over the South China Sea, “because either that will deny China all moral and legal authority to do what’s doing, or it won’t,” said a former senior Barack Obama administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity”.

The article makes the historical point that “The spats over the South China Sea have pit Beijing against neighbours like the Philippines and Vietnam for decades; Vietnam and China actually did battle over some of the barren atolls in the early 1970s. In recent years, however, China has aggressively moved to turn its paper claims over South China Sea features into reality. Beijing has spent billions of dollars to dredge tons of sand and coral to artificially add thousands of acres to the disputed islets; many are now big enough to hold air fields and fighter jets, radar and air-defense stations, and deep-water docks”.

The Chinese aggression has prompted a response from those of Capitol Hill, “China’s new gambit has top U.S. lawmakers seeing red and calling for a more forceful U.S response. “The United States should consider additional options to raise the costs on Beijing’s behaviour,” said Senate Armed Forces Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), who decried what he called China’s “militarization” of the region and “coercion” of neighbours. He said that even “conducting occasional freedom of navigation operations are inadequate,” and that to really push back against Beijing, the United States must adopt “policies with a level of risk that we have been unwilling to consider up to this point.” Tellingly, Beijing deployed the advanced weaponry to the South China Sea just as President Obama hosted the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, at a two-day summit in California — the first to be held in the United States. As in recent years, dueling claims and provocative actions in the South China Sea dominated the talks. ASEAN members danced around an explicit condemnation of China’s behaviour, but in a joint statement at the end of the summit the Southeast Asian leaders specifically and unanimously agreed to uphold the international, rules-based order”.

Correctly the piece notes the repercussions of Chinese actions, “China’s claims and land reclamation activities have driven many Asian nations closer to the United States. Tokyo and Washington revised their joint defense guidelines, and Japan has largely jettisoned its post-World War II pacifist stance. The Philippines is asking U.S. military forces to come back 25 years after kicking them out. Even Vietnam, a communist country with close trade ties with China, is moving closer to Washington and seeking to buy U.S. weaponry to push back against Beijing. Ironically, though, one U.S. ally in the region is making Washington’s response even trickier. Taiwan, a key ally that buys billions of dollars worth of U.S. defense gear, seemed to side with China when recently wading into the dispute. Outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou made a high-profile visit last month to Taiping Island, which is occupied by Taiwan and claimed by China, over the strong objections of Obama administration officials and diplomats. China’s former nationalist government, which lost the civil war against Mao Zedong and Chinese Communists before decamping for Taiwan in 1949, originally created the nine-dash line map to encompass its sweeping vision of China’s island realm. By insisting that Taiping is an island, and not a rock like the Philippines claims, Taiwan is possibly undermining Manila’s case before the international tribunal and providing legal ammunition for mainland China”.

Pointedly he writes “At issue before The Hague court is Manila’s contention that the features claimed by China in the South China Sea are rocks, not real islands. While it sounds arcane, the distinction matters: Under international law, islands are endowed with huge, exclusive economic zones up to 200 miles deep; rocks, on the other hand, are not. And rocks that are normally under water, as were many South China Sea features before Chinese bulldozers went to work, don’t enjoy any territorial sea at all. But the Court of Permanent Arbitration has no powers of enforcement. And China has made clear since the suit began that it would not cooperate. Experts say that may leave it to the United States to put teeth into the tribunal’s finding, by, for example, aggressively sailing past Chinese-claimed features that aren’t legally deemed to be islands”.

It ends “Although China’s assertive stance has sparked a reaction from Vietnam, the Philippines, and other countries in the region that since have sought closer security ties to Washington, the blowback has not been sufficient so far to persuade Beijing to pull back from its course. A ruling against China from an independent, internationally respected court like the one in The Hague would be a political embarrassment for a country that has portrayed itself as a responsible player on the world stage. But Beijing could decide to simply weather the storm, as it has calculated so far that Washington and other Asian governments are not willing to risk military confrontation or economic retaliation over the South China Sea. And whatever the court rules, no one is predicting Beijing will renounce the claims it has staked out or reverse the massive reclamation work it has undertaken. For Washington, perhaps the best outcome would be a quiet freeze by China on its militarization activities, or a conciliatory move to permit fishermen from the Philippines to ply disputed waters off its coast. But even if the United States goes all in, by stepping up naval patrols, increasing military cooperation with partners and allies in Asia, and bolstering its economic reach with a Pacific trade deal, it may be too late to roll back the Chinese tide. Beijing appears intent on asserting what it sees as vital, indisputable interests in the Western Pacific, even if that means souring relations with Washington”.



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