The perilous churn in the South China Sea, dubbed “Asia’s Cauldron” by one leading strategic analyst, stems from the overlapping claims of six states – Brunei, China, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – over a body of water vital to global trade, which contains energy resources and abundant fish stock in its vast depths. Negotiations over a maritime Code of Conduct to stabilize interactions in the South China Sea have been outpaced by the jockeying of ships between China and the Philippines. In the wake of a dangerous and asymmetric two-month standoff over the disputed Scarborough Shoal beginning in April 2012, Manila has rightly sought recourse in international law to manage the dispute through arbitration. For the sake of regional stability and its own interests, Beijing should follow suit.
The legal wrangling started in January 2013, when the Philippines notified China of its intent to bring a challenge under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an international treaty governing the rights and responsibilities of states in their use of the oceans and seas. (Both China and the Philippines are parties to UNCLOS, while the United States has yet to ratify it.) The Philippines argued then that China’s so-called “nine-dash line,” which encompasses virtually the entire South China Sea, was unlawful and contrary to UNCLOS.
China’s response was to reject the Philippines’ notification letter altogether, noting Beijing had opted out of UNCLOS procedures for settling disputes that involve sovereignty claims or maritime boundaries.
Beijing must now take a clear and hard look at the merits of abstaining any further. While it may have a legal basis to abstain, acting on it could be strategically shortsighted. Given Beijing’s assertions that its nine-dash line is grounded in international law, a greater show of confidence would be to defend its position before a neutral tribunal.