South China Sea: Is Beijing making a new ‘strategic strait’?

by Everett Rosenfeld | Apr 2016 | CNBC.COM

A major test for the future of Asia is on the horizon, and it’s centered on the South China Sea.

Within the next three months, a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is expected to rule on China’s expansive and somewhat ambiguous territorial claims in the South China Sea, which the Philippines contends are invalid under international law.

chinaMap2-01That decision is important for a number of reasons, but among them, experts say, is that China’s island-grabbing campaign may be designed to give Beijing a strategic headlock on one of the planet’s most critical waterways.

Experts tell CNBC that China will likely lose some elements of the Hague case, “Philippines v. China.” The world’s most populous nation has already denounced the process, and opted not to participate, but the tribunal’s decision will technically still be binding under international law.

Beyond the geographical claims themselves, the tribunal is also looking into whether Beijing is overstating the types of territory it controls — the air and maritime rights associated with rocks are different than those of reefs or islands — and the legality of other Chinese actions near the Philippines.

Experts who closely watch developments in the South China Sea tell CNBC that they expect China to lose at least some of the elements of the case, but the real test will come in how Beijing reacts to a ruling. It’s possible that China will back off from its broadest claims, but it may also demonstrate a willingness to buck the international legal system.

My speculation would be that China has basically calculated that it will take some near-term, rather assertive actions in the South China Sea, and pay short-term reputation costs in exchange for what it believes to be longer-term strategic gains,” Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for New American Security, said.

Beijing’s real rationale for risking its global reputation over a handful of tiny islands remains open for debate. Most agree that China truly believes it has a historic right to the region — but the South China Sea’s relatively paltry energy resources (especially with oil now so cheap) hardly justify such an assertive grab on a realpolitik basis. Read more…

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