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South China Sea Dispute; a Battle between David and Goliath

RemofiloeChina and the Philippines have been engaged in a tug of war over who has legitimate sovereignty over parts of the South China Sea1, an area that sees one-third of the world’s shipping pass through it and is believed to have huge oil and natural gas reserves under its seabed, from as far back as the 1970’s. This dispute has since escalated with the outgoing Filipino President, Benigno Aquino, filling an international legal case in 2013 against Beijing and China responding by reiterating its stance against third party interference.

China has claimed 11 735.9 square meters; the largest portion of territory, defined by the ‘nine-dash line2. The Chinese have argued that their claim to the island is centuries old, beginning when the Paracel and Spratly Island chains were regarded as integral parts of the Chinese nation, even issuing a detailed map in 1947 as supporting evidence3. The Chinese have always advocated for bilateral negotiations in order to resolve the dispute using the rules and mechanisms that have upheld peace and stability in the SCS.

According to the Chinese ambassador to South Africa, “a certain country outside the region is working to escalate tensions and complexity in the Asia-Pacific region by playing up the SCS issue and excitingly roots for the Philippines and others in order to scale up and complicate the situation while it repeatedly deploys warships to the region for the so called freedom of navigation operation”. The arbitration route taken by the Philippines is seen by the Chinese as a way for them to legitimize their seizures of Chinese territory. However, these attempts and the case filed against the Chinese have not derailed their attempts at bilateral negotiations with the Philippines as China still insists that is the only way to reach an amicable outcome that will not disrupt the peace and stability in the ASEAN4 region.

The Aquino administration had consistently maintained a hardline policy towards Beijing regarding the SCS dispute while maintaining warm relations with Washington and Tokyo. However President, Rodrigo Duterte, who was sworn in on the 30th June 2016, is still to clearly state where he stands on the SCS dispute. He has gone from saying if China is willing to pay, he is open to negotiations to saying he will ride to the contested islands on a Jet Ski and plant a Filipino flag there and to saying he believes in sharing5. The chairmanship of ASEAN moving to the Philippines next year, gives the unpredictable Duterte more leverage over the SCS dispute. This is because he can either use his chairmanship to address the matter by following in his predecessors’ steps in joining the United States of America (USA) and Japan in tightening efforts to block China from taking control of the region or by joining China in bilateral negotiations and resolving this centuries old dispute.

The USA has shown interest in the SCS dispute; even though it is not a member of ASEAN because they are of the opinion that if China is allowed to bully its neighbors and define a new area of geopolitical dominance, it will destabilize Asia and the world6. Furthermore, the USA’s involvement seeks to encourage China to abide by international law. The USA has accused China of creating islands that could be used as airstrips in the Spratley islands and has vowed to continue sending military aircraft and ships to the tense region to protect navigation rights.

The legal route initiated by the Aquino administration will not end the dispute because Article 298 of the United Nations Convention on the Law Of the Sea, which China made an exclusion declaration in 2006, legally exempts China from any compulsory dispute settlement procedure by a third party, so even if the Philippines wins the case filed against China7, the Chinese are under no obligation to abide by the decision.

Multilateral negotiations between all countries that border the South China Sea present the best possibility of resolving the dispute in an outcome that will benefit all involved. As this dispute involves state sovereignty, the USA should remove itself so that the countries involved can get their house in order. In order to ensure that the negotiations will favor everyone, China would have to stop bullying the smaller countries and instead focus resources on building and improving infrastructure that will positively contribute to the growth of the region.

Ms Remofiloe Lobakeng holds a BA Hons in International Politics from UNISA and is a research assistant at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD

1 A peripheral sea that is part of the Pacific Ocean, located in the south of mainland China, including the island of Taiwan in the east; east of Vietnam and Cambodia; west of the Philippines; east of the Malay peninsula and Sumatra, up to the Strait of Malacca in the west and north of the Bangka–Belitung Islands and Borneo.
2 Demarcation line that was initially used by the government of the Republic of China (Taiwan) with the help of the United States legal office and now used by the government of the Republic of China for their claims of the major part of the South China Sea.
3 Ambassador Tian Xuejun: China will not fall into the trap of South China Sea Arbitration 2016/06/02
4 Association of Southeast Asian Nations
5 http://www.reuters.com/article/us-southchinasea-philippines-duterte-idUSKCN0Y01I1
6 Ernest Bower, Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Centre for Strategic International Studies
7 The International Court of Arbitration is expected to hand down its ruling on the 12th July 2016

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