Suppose you have two kids who are fighting for a toy that they both say belongs to them. What would you do? Share it, right? This July, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled in favor of the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a decision that China refuses to accept. It is surprising that the two nations, who have long been fighting over their claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea, cannot grasp the potential of mutual benefit in cooperation, since the Philippines lacks sufficient funding and technology to fully exploit the maritime resources of the region and China lacks sufficient legal and political basis to justify its unilateral occupation. With ongoing Russian and Chinese naval exercises in the embroiled region, the kids need to grow up and learn to share peacefully and swiftly.
Since July, China has responded to the ruling by accelerating its land reclamation projects and increasing its military presence in the region. Despite such a strong response, China issued a surprisingly mild statement saying that it is “ready to make every effort with the states concerned to jointly maintain peace and stability.” The combination of a hard military stance and the offering of a political olive branch indicates that China is in trouble domestically because its administration aroused nationalistic sentiments with respect to the South China Sea issue. So in order for China to now “save face,” it needs to put up a tough stance, while also leaving the option of cooperation open. It would be pointless to impose the ruling on China for two reasons. First, China is willing to work toward joint maritime development, something that the states involved can agree on given the massive economic benefits and the compromise of shared control over the region. Second, though the court’s decision is legally binding, there is no mechanism to enforce it, meaning that there are no procedures or measures that the PCA can take to ensure China’s compliance. With heightened tensions in the region, China’s olive branch provides an opportunity for a fresh start in the South China Sea to secure peace and explore common economic interests.
Moreover, with increasing Chinese presence, the South China Sea has become one of the most heavily armed regions in the world. Hainan, a tropical Chinese island in the South China Sea known for its beaches and floral shirts, now has something else on its coastlines: massive state-of-the-art military facilities harboring the largest navy force in Asia. The proximity between the military harbors and the touristy beaches is a reminder of just how closely war can impact daily lives, and considering the involvement of nuclear powers, the consequences of conflict in the South China Sea would be grave and devastating. Logic tells us not to put valuables next to explosives, but the South China Sea has an annual shipborne trade value of over 5 trillion dollars, meaning that conflict in the region could impact the lives of everyone from average citizens to global corporations. If and when conflict arises, the South China Sea will become inaccessible and dangerous, thereby affecting hundreds of shipping channels and trade routes. Thus, given the stakes at hand, the states involved should support peaceful negotiations and work toward cooperation and collaboration in the region.
However, in order for negotiations to succeed, the Philippines need to set aside the arbitration ruling, because China, a country with a long history of colonial and foreign domination, hates being embarrassed on the international stage, and this ruling, which dismisses and invalidates most of China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, represents an attack on its global presence and reputation. Hence, some believe that the differing perspectives of the two nations may hinder pragmatic progress in the relationship, as the Philippines considers the ruling a “victory” whereas China regards it as “a piece of waste paper.” Nonetheless, there have already been optimistic signs for a fresh start between China and the Philippines. In August, Fidel Ramos, a former Philippine president with a wealth of experience in Chinese diplomacy, arrived in Hong Kong as a special envoy on behalf of the Philippines, vowing to find “common points of interest” between the Philippines and China. More importantly, Asian leaders cooled down tensions at a carefully worded ASEAN summit, in which the PCA ruling was not brought up by anyone, and agreed to implement the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, which will establish a system of communication to ensure long-term peace and stability in the region.
Given the grave consequences of conflict and China’s willingness to participate in joint maritime regimes, the most important thing moving forward is for China and the Philippines to begin bilateral talks, clear the bad blood between them, and work toward joint maritime development projects such as co-owned fisheries and shared infrastructure. Or else, the next time we see Russian and Chinese battleships in the South China Sea, it may not just be a drill.