United We Stand, Divided We Fall: ASEAN skirts around the South China Sea ruling


July’s ASEAN summit provided a rare opportunity to reflect on the recent Hague ruling on the Philippines’ dispute with China in the South China Sea. However, the summit concluded without a clear response from the region, allowing China to continue with belligerent actions in the region. By MANDIRA BAGWANDEEN.

Mandira Bagwandeen is Asia Pacific analyst at S-RM (formerly Salamanca Risk Management), a business intelligence and risk consulting company based in Cape Town.

On 12 July, a tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) emphatically debunked China’s claims to territory in the South China Sea. Unlike other South China Sea claimants, the Philippines is, to date, the only country to have taken legal action against the Asian heavyweight.

The dispute concerned the validity of China’s historical claim to maritime entitlements which extend from southern China to encompass almost all of the South China Sea. While Beijing has continuously boycotted the authority of the UN court, asserting that it does not have jurisdiction to settle the dispute, the tribunal unequivocally discredited Beijing’s claim and affirmed that it had no legal entitlement to territory and resources in the region.

The tribunal also found that China’s construction of several artificial islands violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines. In total, the tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines on 14 of the 15 claims that were lodged. While a victory for the Philippines, and encouraging for other claimants including Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei, Beijing has remained steadfast. Furthermore, with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) failing to endorse the ruling during its summit in late July, the regional body has failed to significantly challenge China’s growing dominance over the region, allowing Beijing to maintain its activities in the South China Sea and simultaneously spurring claimants to take unilateral defensive actions.

While the Philippines has avoided triumphant rhetoric in response to the ruling, China has issued aggressive statements refusing to acknowledge the verdict. The day after the ruling, on 13 July, Beijing released a policy paper affirming that all land features in the region were its “inherent territory” and in defiance of the verdict landed commercial jets on two newly built airstrips on Mischief and Subi reefs.