China plans to reject a ruling that is due on July 12 from a Hague arbitration court regarding a long-simmering territorial dispute between China and the Philippines over the South China Sea.
In an exclusive interview with an official from the Chinese mission to the United Nations, the official said that China would “never accept” the arbitration proceeding or its outcome by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The dispute, brought by the Philippines in 2013, is centered on the jurisdiction of a cluster of islands and reefs in the South China Sea that China claims as its own and calls the Nansha Islands.
The case is not deciding sovereignty but challenging China’s claims over much of the sea as illegal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Besides the Philippines’ dispute with China, tensions with the latter over control of South China Sea, a crucial waterway in the region, have also entangled Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam.
The Philippines’ case contests that China’s legal claims violate the treaty by interfering with the Philippines’ ability to exercise its sovereign rights and freedoms and that construction and fishing activities by the Chinese have hurt the marine environment.
The Philippines initiated the arbitration through an international tribunal set up via the dispute-settlement provisions of the treaty, of which the Philippines and China are signatories. The five arbitrators deciding the case consist of four judges and one professor.
The Chinese official said that his government was hopeful the dispute could be resolved through negotiation, given remarks over time by the president-designate of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, suggesting he would take such an approach to the problem. Duterte became president on June 30.
According to tribunal documents, the South China Sea is a semienclosed sea in the western Pacific Ocean spanning an area of almost 3.5 million square kilometers, or about 2.2 million square miles. Besides being a vital shipping lane, it has a rich fishing ground and holds substantial oil and gas resources. The sea abuts seven countries, five of which have competing claims to its waters. This includes the Philippines and China.
The Philippines bases its arbitration claim on its geographical proximity to these islands, also known as the Spratly Islands.
According to official Chinese position papers, the Nansha Islands have been part of Chinese territory since “ancient times” and do not fall within the western boundary of the Philippines. The Chinese official said that his country was excluded from “compulsory dispute settlement procedures” in the Law of the Sea treaty, noting that more than 30 countries have made “similar statements of exclusion,” including three of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, he said. (Britain, France and Russia are parties to the treaty; the United States is not.)
Concern about possible militarization of the territories by China has fed some of the dispute, including reports that China might build bases for jets or missiles within reach of Manila, raising the specter of a military clash with the Philippines, a close ally of the US.
China defends its construction activities on some of its “stationed islands and reefs” in the Nansha Islands by saying in documents that these are intended to “improve the working and living conditions of the Chinese personnel stationed there” and to “better fulfill its relevant international responsibilities and obligations.”
After construction is completed, the documents say “China will provide the international community with more public goods and services in maritime search and rescue and disaster prevention” and other benefits.
As to the deployment of “necessary defense facilities” on some of the islands and reefs, China noted that these activities were “completely different in nature from the construction and military buildup that the Philippines and Vietnam have long been engaged” on Chinese islands and reefs that they have “illegally occupied.”
The Chinese are contending that the US is behind the Filipino stance and that the “South China Sea seems like an outlet for the rivalry and confrontation that are building up of late between China and the US.”
As a result, a May 9, 2016, position paper said, “the two sides seem to be reassessing each other’s intentions on a strategic level.”
“So now, what’s next, what will happen in the South China Sea?” the paper asked. “The US is trying to find out what China’s next move will be. On the part of China, suspicion is rising about the US’s intention.”
As the tribunal prepares to rule on the arbitration case, the US Navy sent two aircraft carriers and accompanying ships on training drills in the western Pacific Ocean recently.
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.