Pressure on China over its claims to most of the strategic South China Sea went up a couple of notches this week. First the US sent a warship, in its most direct challenge yet to Beijing’s artificial island building. Then, over Chinese objections, an international tribunal ruled it had jurisdiction in a case brought by the Philippines on maritime claims.
Neither action appeared likely to stop China in its tracks, as it seeks to assert its control over resource-rich waters that it considers vital to its security. Beijing is expected to put a higher priority on what it sees as its strategic interests than its international reputation.
But it could damage China’s efforts to win more respect on the global stage as it emerges as an economic and military power.
The United States, which has had little success to date in its five-year effort to put diplomatic pressure on China over its uncompromising pursuit of claims to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, is hoping that makes a difference. It welcomed the tribunal decision and said it expected Beijing to abide by the final ruling next year.
Although the tribunal was set up on the basis of a provision of the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that both the Philippines and China have ratified, China has boycotted the proceedings. On Friday its Foreign Ministry declared that the ruling on jurisdiction was “null and void” and would have no binding effect on China.
The Philippine case, which was filed before the tribunal in The Hague in January 2013, contends that China’s massive territorial claims are invalid under the convention. The tribunal on Thursday decided it has jurisdiction in the case.
The tribunal will also examine whether a number of Chinese-occupied reefs and shoals — including an artificial island that was skirted by a US warship this week in a freedom of navigation maneuver that riled Beijing — do generate, or create a claim to, territorial waters and an economic zone. A US ally, the Philippines, contends that they do not.
“The fact that the tribunal did not reject jurisdiction on anything in the case brought by the Philippines, and could end up ruling against it on all these counts, introduces uncertainty and anxiety for China,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
In all, six Asian governments have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, straddling some of the world’s busiest sea lanes and in areas with rich fishing grounds and potential undersea oil and gas fields. China’s massive construction to transform at least seven shoals and reefs into islands in the disputed Spratly Islands have ratcheted up tensions.