Should Duterte step back on the South China Sea?

by Aileen San Pablo-Baviera / 25 May 2016 / EastAsiaForum

Some countries have become wary of China’s aspiration to become a maritime power because the means pursued by the Xi Jinping government — as seen in the disputed South China Sea — appear to ignore the legitimate interests of its smaller neighbours, flout existing international norms and pose risks to regional peace and stability.

China’s de facto control of Scarborough Shoal since 2012 and the construction of several submerged reefs into significant civilian–military facilities, along with its intensified presence and activity in the farthest reaches of its claimed nine-dash line, have in effect already changed the status quo.

Among those who have pushed back the hardest, mainly through diplomatic and legal means, is the Aquino government in the Philippines. As President Benigno Aquino bows out to give way to President-elect Rodrigo Duterte on 1 July 2016, the region will be watching to see whether Manila will stay the course in its approach to maritime disputes with China.

The Aquino course consists of resorting to arbitration and other platforms afforded by international law to defend its own maritime rights. The Aquino administration relied on the support of the United States and other friendly countries to beef up its maritime security capabilities. And it resisted Beijing’s offers of direct bilateral talks and proposals for joint resource development in the disputed areas.

Much, of course, depends on how China itself behaves in the coming months. The announcement of a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration panel — which is expected not to favour China’s expansive claims — will be a watershed and a test of China’s intentions. China itself will then be faced with the choice of whether to stay its course or to sail in a different direction.

If China were to proceed with unilateral assertions of sovereignty — which could lead to militarisation of the sea, challenges to the rights of the Philippines and other coastal states within their claimed exclusive economic zone as well as splits within ASEAN — this could cause regional instability and discredit the idea of international law. But if Beijing steps back from displays of force and shows that it is committed to international legal principles after all, then the post-Aquino government — and governments across the region — will have incentives to cooperate. Read more…

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