Is there a way for Beijing to save face after the South China Sea arbitration ruling?

15 June, 2016 / by SCMP

International tensions are rising rapidly as D-Day approaches in the Philippines arbitration case against China. Increasingly anxious, Beijing is resorting to a full-court press in the propaganda realm, seeking to justify its refusal to parti­cipate in the proceedings, and it has rejected in advance the forthcoming decision of the distinguished arbitration panel of five independent maritime experts. Both the Chinese Society of International Law and the All China Lawyers Association have just issued dutiful supporting arguments.

Rumour even has it that the People’s Republic, by enticing many landlocked autocracies and other smaller states with no apparent interest in the South China Sea to endorse its position, may seek to delegitimise the arbitration decision through a majority vote in the UN General Assembly or some other international forum.

The Philippines, by contrast, has done relatively little to publicly lobby its case with the world community, even while doing an excellent job in presenting its legal claims to the tribunal it convened in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The controversial election of its new president, Rodrigo Duterte, who will take office on July 1, has created uncertainty about how his government might build upon the platform that the arbitration decision may give him for a better bargaining position in any renewal of previously unsuccessful maritime negotiations with China. There are even recent indications that Duterte might soften his country’s maritime position in exchange for massive Chinese economic assistance.

Taiwan finds itself in a third distinctive position. The recently departed administration of president Ma Ying-jeou, himself an international law specialist, went all out to persuade both the world and the tribunal that Taiping Island (Itu Aba), the largest of the disputed Spratly chain and the only one that Taiwan occupies, deserves a 200-nautical-mile “exclusive economic zone”. Taipei and Beijing, because they both claim to represent China, take similar positions regarding many of the issues at stake in the arbitration. Yet Taipei, it should be emphasised, unlike Beijing, does not seek to discredit either the tribunal’s proceedings or the arbitrator. Read more…

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