The 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration against China on Beijing’s maritime claims to almost the entire South China Sea should have been a seminal event in east Asian history.
Here was an international body rejecting China’s “historic” claims to almost the whole sea and supporting the Exclusive Economic Zone claims of Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei as well as those of the Philippines which had brought the case.
In reality, thus far at least, apart from Vietnam the non-Chinese nations themselves have shown themselves to be less interested in principles and long-term national interest than in diplomatic dances and hints of deal-making with China. One year on, China is as forceful and unapologetic as ever in pressing its imperial claims on the ground.
And the other states, again Vietnam excepted, lack of resolve is a reminder that they are relatively recent creations with little sense of their pre-colonial history and hence limited commitment to more than rhetorical nationalism.
Anyone wanting to see in detail the chasm between the precision and detail of the Court of Arbitration and the woolly-minded responses of so many of the region’s politicians and diplomats should get a copy of this collection of essays edited and with a concise preface by James Borton, an independent journalist and a senior fellow at the US-Asia Institute. They complement Bill Hayton’s excellent work “The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia” which was published in 2014 and provides the most comprehensive coverage of the past history and the evolution of current claims. Borton’s book was the outcome of a workshop held in Nha Trang last August.
Necessarily in such a collection the quality varies but overall it provides a very useful tour of facts and views. There is detailed if dense exposition of the legal foundations of the Court’s decision and its clarification of Article 121(3) of the Law of the Sea Convention. There are well presented arguments from Vietnamese and Philippine experts both on the ruling and in the Vietnam case its national approaches to settlement of sea boundary disputes such as in the Gulf of Thailand.
Japanese, Indians and Koreans look at the ruling in the light of their own issues with China. US and other academics looks at the wider strategic ramifications of the situation. And contributors from Thailand and Indonesia show how so many find it easier to drone on about ASEAN unity than address the real issues confronting their neighbors.
Malaysian representation is unfortunately lacking in this collection. But perhaps that accurately reflects its determination to close its eyes and focus on collecting Chinese money than defending its seas – especially those most under threat from China lie off Sabah and Sarawak, not the peninsula where the power lies.
The volume also brings attention to the importance of environmental issues and particularly the management of the fast dwindling fish resources on which so many in the littoral states depend for their livelihood. Indeed, in that context the decision of Philippine “populist” President Duterte to set aside the ruling in pursuit of Chinese gold looks bizarre – or just reflects the lack of deep national commitment among some of the region’s political elites.
Philip Bowring is writing a maritime history of the South China Sea. He is a founder and consulting editor to Asia Sentinel.