NST Leader: Nation at Sea

















China says it would neither seek hegemony nor bully the small. Reassuring though Beijing's words are to the mainly small Southeast Asian nations, last week's flare-up between China and the Philippines near the Second Thomas Shoal in the contested Spratly Islands tells an alarming and an unnerving story.


There, in news agency AFP's telling, Chinese coast guard vessels travelled hundreds of kilometres from China's coastline to fire water cannons at Filipino boats delivering supplies to its marines.


All of Manila was a combination of disgust and anger. So was Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who gave vent to the combo of Manilan rage, at the Asian regional summit in Beijing hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping. "We abhor the recent event in the Ayungin Shoal and view with grave concern other similar developments.


This does not speak well of the relations between our nations and our partnership." Duterte's strong words must not only have shocked Beijing, but also Manila, where he is seen as a China-friendly president.


Unlike his predecessor, Duterte has been, since his election in 2016, courting Beijing. China has, for some strange reasons, failed to capitalise on such an opportunity "to build the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation", to use Xi's own words delivered at the summit.


China may have missed a chance in another sense, too. Given China's increasing aggression, Duterte's successor, whoever that may be, is bound to take a harder stand on Philippines maritime rights. To Beijing's detriment, the new president may be Washington-bound.


The United States has made it clear on Friday to Beijing that if China were to attack Filipino vessels it may be forced to respond in kind. Neither China nor Southeast Asia would like to see the region turned into a war zone. AUKUS, anyone?


China' maritime ambitions — some may say military ambitions — are turning the South China Sea into a flashpoint. The culprit is Beijing's nine-dash line that makes a claim on almost all of the South China Sea.


Southeast Asian nations, including Malaysia, contest this, with their own overlapping claims to all or parts of the South China Sea. It was China's expansive claims that eventually led the Philippines in January 2013 to bring a case against China to the arbitration tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In July 2016, the tribunal decided in favour of the Philippines.


It was in some ways a victory for the Southeast Asian nations, too, as the case clarified their resource rights under UNCLOS. If the tribunal's findings can be collapsed into a sentence, it must be this: China's rights under its so-called historic nine-dash line were extinguished when Beijing ratified UNCLOS in 1996. Why?


As of that date, China's nine-dash line has given way to the coastal states' exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as spelt out in the treaty. Incompatible as they are, they can't coexist. This means not only the Philippines is entitled to the 200-nautical-mile EEZ, but also the other coastal nations are similarly entitled to their 200-nautical-mile EEZ.

To date, China refuses to recognise the decision though it is a willing party to UNCLOS. Yes, the South China Sea can be a sea of peace. But first there must be a law making peace possible. And that law is UNCLOS.


This article was published in The New Straits Times dated 24 November 2021. Republished with permission from The New Straits Times.




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2022-01-22 18:04