Signs of rule of law in Asia’s Wild West


One reason the world pays so much attention to a white-knuckle struggle over East Asia’s seas and islands is that the watery clashes resemble the bad old days of America’s Wild West.

Brute force competes with the law. Crude power tries to trump principles applicable to all. A grand battle is underway to create a permanent rulebook.

The players in the region know this. So when they actually sit down to listen to each other, as they did Friday and Saturday at an annual conference in Singapore known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, the underlying tension is whether rule of law will prevail in bringing about peaceful resolutions.

Much like Russia’s recent taking of Crimea, China has been subverting international law with aggressive intrusions into the air, waters, or islands long controlled by Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Beijing claims that the ancient travels of Chinese sailors give it sovereignty over areas far beyond the legal 200 nautical miles off its coastline. Such a stance, so outside current legal norms, has pushed even Indonesia to forgo its mediating role in these conflicts. In March, it made a complaint against Beijing’s claim.

During the two-day regional defense conference, which included Chinese and American top military brass, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set a high tone in these remarks:

“What the world eagerly awaits is for our seas and our skies to be places governed by rules, laws, and established dispute resolution procedures,” said Mr. Abe. “The least desirable state of affairs is having to fear that coercion and threats will take the place of rules and laws.”

Now compare that statement to how China reacted in April after the Philippines filed a legal suit over Beijing’s claim to much of the South China Sea.  The Philippines will “face consequences,” stated the Chinese foreign ministry, simply for taking its case to the United Nation’s International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea. China has already diminished the flow of Chinese tourists to its neighbor, not to mention the taking of shoals in Philippine waters.

The legal case by Manila is the first time that an East Asian maritime dispute has been taken to court. This is a small triumph that deserves the support of other Asian nations.

In early May, after China positioned an oil rig in Vietnam’s waters, Vietnam also signaled that it would follow the Philippines in filing a legal case. And on May 22, Indonesia and the Philippines wrapped up 20 years of negotiations and signed a maritime border agreement that sets boundaries for the overlapping economic zones in their shared seas.


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