On December 7, 2014, China’s Foreign Ministry was authorized to release the “Position Paper of the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Matter of Jurisdiction in the South China Sea Arbitration Initiated by the Republic of the Philippines.” Various explanations have been offered for this by media outlets both in China and abroad, and the issue is of renewed importance today. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague finished hearing the Philippines’ oral arguments this week, but as China refuses to participate in the arbitration, the December position paper remains the clearest outline of China’s stance on the case. What are the highlights and features of the document? What was the effect of publicly releasing this document? And what will China’s next step be?
As everyone who is following the South China Sea issue knows, the Philippines submitted a “memorial” of ten volumes and nearly 4,000 pages to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea. Within that memorial, the first volume was the most important – 270 pages including the Philippines’ legal analysis and relevant evidence relating to this case, explaining in detail why the arbitral tribunal has the jurisdiction to accept the Philippines’ request for arbitration. Volumes two through ten were appendixes, including archival data, evidence, and maps supporting the Philippines’ position.
According to the tribunal’s process, China had to present its counter-memorial by December 15, 2014. But on March 31, 2014, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry clearly expressed that China does not accept and will not participate in the arbitration. The act of releasing the position paper on the eve of the December deadline was effective in two ways: it both expounded on why the tribunal does not have jurisdiction over this case and reiterated China’s position of not participating in the case. So does this mean there has been a chance in China’s South China Sea policy, from the earlier, softer stance of “dual-track approach” to the clear position expressed in the position paper? If not, how to explain the relationship between these two?