WATERLOO, ONTARIO – Much has changed and much remains the same since Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague ruled last year on rival claims to the South China Sea. Dampening China’s ambitions in the highly contested area, the court ruled that China had no historical right over the South China Sea, recognizing 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 center of public and political debate in the Asia-Pacific region and the West alike. While some maintain that the ruling has led to decreased tensions, there is far from enough evidence to say this with absolute certainty. Whether one does believe 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 and might come next.
Back to the drawing board
Surely, many 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 all of these voices were quite mistaken. While few expected Beijing to return to the drawing board on this issue and modify its narrative, 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, since then the Chinese government has 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.