South China Sea: China willing to pay the price of defiance

AP News
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Posted: Jun 15, 2016 7:41 AM
South China Sea: China willing to pay the price of defiance

BEIJING (AP) — Even before a ruling, China may have lost by refusing to cooperate with a U.N. arbitration tribunal over its claim to virtually the entire strategic South China Sea. Yet Beijing seems prepared to absorb the cost to its reputation, confident that in terms of territory and resources, it won't lose a thing.

Here is a look at some of the key points of the case before the tribunal and its potential effects for China, the region and the world.

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THE ARBITRATION CASE

The case before The Hague tribunal, filed by the Philippines, centers on the applicability of China's vaguely drawn "nine-dash line" boundary claim in the South China Sea under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. A decision is expected sometime within the next several weeks, but since there is no enforcement mechanism, its potential impact is unclear.

Along with China and the Philippines, four other governments — Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam — also claim islands and reefs falling within the nine-dash line, while Indonesia has expressed concern about the Chinese boundary also overlapping its exclusive economic zone. Each year an estimated $5 trillion in global trade passes through the South China Sea, also home to rich fishing stocks and a potential wealth of oil, gas and other resources.

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CHINA'S IRRITATED RESPONSE

Despite pressure from Washington and elsewhere, China appears determined to avoid granting any hint of legitimacy to a process that might challenge its sovereignty claim and control over resources. For months, Chinese officials, state media outlets and high-ranking military officers have maintained a relentless stream of invective against the Philippines' pursuit of arbitration, calling it unlawful, illegitimate and a "political farce."

"The South China Sea arbitration unilaterally initiated by the Philippines is nothing but a political scheme for one party to insult the other and will be recorded as an infamous case in the history of international law," Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told a group of visiting reporters in Beijing earlier this month.

Still, Beijing says it remains committed to bilateral negotiations with Manila, giving no direct indication of a tougher response despite speculation that it might make more military deployments to the region or announce a Chinese-managed air defense identification zone over all or part of the South China Sea.

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DAMAGE CONTROL AND IMPACT ON THE REGION

Seeking to win over global opinion, both China and chief Philippine ally the United States have been lining up friendly nations to back their positions. Yet, with the exception of Russia, the countries whose support Beijing's claims are mostly small states from outside the region with little influence over the dispute.

China has also shown some signs of restraint in not expanding its claims or vigorously seeking to eject other countries' militaries from islands it claims. It also seems to be winding up its island building projects in the southeastern portion of the sea, in which it has added more than 1,295 hectares (3,200 acres) of land topped with runways and military installations.

That may be an attempt to retain some credibility over its repeated evocations of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed by China and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

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WHAT'S BEHIND CHINA'S STANCE

China insists the South China Sea disputes should be hammered out in bilateral talks between it and other claimants. It has steadfastly rejected third-party arbitration or negotiations on key issues such as sovereignty in multilateral bodies such as ASEAN.

Resurgent nationalism, control of resources and a desire for operational strategic depth for the rapidly modernizing People's Liberation Army are emboldening President Xi Jinping in taking a hard line.

That the Hague panel is headed by a former diplomat from China's old nemesis, Japan, makes it even more worthy of derision, Chinese critics say. In addition, within the context of what China perceives as a relentless U.S. campaign to contain its rise to prominence, Beijing officials see an American plot behind the case. "We don't understand why the U.S. has been so active in backing the arbitration behind the scene," said Liu, the vice foreign minister. "As time goes by, I believe the plot will eventually come to light."

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BROADER LEGAL IMPLICATIONS

Whatever the outcome, China's refusal to cooperate with the tribunal could harm efforts to promote international arbitration that have already been hamstrung by the occasional refusal of the United States and others to recognize the International Court of Justice and other institutions.

China's noncompliance is also damaging to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea itself, since it could discourage compliance with other key features, particularly its establishment of 200-nautical mile (370-kilometer) exclusive economic zones, said James Kraska, a professor of oceans law and policy at the U.S. Naval War College.

Whether other regional claimants will also bring legal challenges against China remains to be seen. They could be deterred by the apparently futility of doing so, as well as an aversion to angering a crucial economic partner.

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Gomez reported from Manila, Philippines.