False calm in the South China Sea should lull no one

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Benoit Hardy-Chartrand says a year after the Hague ruling, the disputes between China and the other claimant states to territories in the South China Sea appear to have abated, but the underlying tensions remain unchanged

Much has changed and much remains the same since the Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled on rivalling claims to the South China Sea just over a year ago. Dampening China’s ambitions in the highly contested area, the court ruled that China had no historical right over the South China Sea, recognising instead that Beijing violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone. Hailed by some as a potential turning point after years of tensions, the ruling remains at the centre of public and political debate in the Asia-Pacific and the West alike.

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Whether or not one believes that the ruling has ushered in a new phase of friendship between Beijing and Manila, the decreased tensions around the South China Sea should not be mistaken for a permanent and stable condition. Instead, the superficial calm that has persisted should be seen as a transitional moment to what can come next.

Surely, some thought at the time, the Chinese government would feel compelled to alter the course of events following the decision, given Beijing’s self-professed observance of international law. But these voices were quite mistaken. And while few expected Beijing to modify its narrative on this issue, that is exactly what happened. In the last year, China has adopted a stance that is more amenable to the interests of other claimant states, while seemingly backing away from military provocation. Furthermore, the Chinese government has since then made no official mention of the “nine-dash line”, which represents Beijing’s ambiguous claims to the body of water. It has given Filipino fishermen access to their traditional fishing areas around the Scarborough Shoal, which had long been a major bone of contention.

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