South China Sea: Why aid will trump is­lands

The Myanmar Times - - News - ROSITA DELLIOS news­room@mm­times.com

THE Hague rul­ing against China’s claims in the South China Sea re­minds me of the Daoist story of the farmer who lost his horse. The horse had run away, but when the farmer’s neigh­bours sought to com­mis­er­ate over his mis­for­tune, the farmer sim­ply said, “Maybe.” He said the same thing the next day when the horse re­turned in the com­pany of six wild horses and the neigh­bours con­grat­u­lated him on his good for­tune. He was right to re­main cir­cum­spect.

The next day his son went to ride one of the wild horses, was thrown off and broke a leg. “What a mis­for­tune,” the ever-so­lic­i­tous neigh­bours said, to which the farmer an­swered, “Maybe.” Not long af­ter, the vil­lage was vis­ited by con­scrip­tion of­fi­cers who were round­ing up able-bod­ied young men for the army. The farmer’s son was seen to be un­fit. When the neigh­bours re­marked how well the story ended, the farmer said, “Maybe.”

So, too, the rul­ing against China might seem like a mis­for­tune for the PRC, but it is not nec­es­sar­ily so. When the Per­ma­nent Court of Ar­bi­tra­tion at The Hague ruled in favour of the Philip­pines on July 12, China nat­u­rally protested. But in re­al­ity plans were un­der­way to ne­go­ti­ate with the “win­ner” who, in turn, was keep­ing a low pro­file. Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte re­frained from tri­umphant rhetoric, seek­ing in­stead the path of diplo­macy.

The dis­pute that trig­gered Manila’s in­ter­na­tional le­gal ac­tion against China in 2013 was over Scar­bor­ough Shoal, 124 nau­ti­cal miles (230 kilo­me­tres) north­west of the Philip­pines. De­spite the le­gal win, Filipino fish­er­men re­main the losers as the China Coast Guard con­tin­ues to deny them en­try into the area.

Here lies a hu­man se­cu­rity is­sue that goes to the heart of China’s wider re­gional strat­egy: the im­por­tance of de­vel­op­ment via the One Belt, One Road Ini­tia­tive. Lit­tle won­der then that smaller coun­tries like the Philip­pines and Viet­nam that have com­pet­ing South China Sea claims are not crow­ing about the rul­ing. They need Chi­nese in­vest­ment and in­clu­sion in the Belt and Road trans­for­ma­tion which will lift liv­ing stan­dards and will have a far greater im­pact than reef-con­sol­i­da­tion ex­er­cises. Viet­nam has al­ready been promised in­vest­ment in ed­u­ca­tion and health­care, “with an ad­di­tional half bil­lion [dol­lars] for in­fra­struc­ture”.

China might have lost to the Philip­pines but it has had the good for­tune of find­ing Tai­wan on the same side of the ar­gu­ment. Bei­jing and Taipei share a view on South China Sea sovereignty. In­deed, it was the Repub­lic of China that first drew the in­fa­mous map with the U-shaped line. The Repub­lic of China (rather than the “Tai­wan Author­ity of China”, as re­ferred to in the rul­ing) still flies its flag on Taip­ing Is­land (Itu Aba), the big­gest of the Spratly group in the South China Sea. That this was de­moted to a non-is­land in the rul­ing, which des­ig­nated land fea­tures to be mere rocks and reefs, fur­ther out­raged Tai­wan. It meant that it was not en­ti­tled to a 200 nau­ti­cal mile ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zone.

Tai­wan’s new pres­i­dent, Tsai Ing­wen, with whom Bei­jing was hav­ing dif­fi­cul­ties, is now closer to China in her stance against the ar­bi­tral award, a for­tu­nate turn of events for China. She is even send­ing a war­ship to Taip­ing Is­land to con­duct its pa­trols sooner than had been planned.

China, in turn, can con­tinue to build up the dis­puted non-is­lands that it oc­cu­pies, as the rul­ing did not say that this it was un­law­ful. As ocean law and pol­icy spe­cial­ist Robert Beck­man noted, “There is noth­ing in the de­ci­sion which would make it un­law­ful for China to con­struct mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tions on the is­lands it oc­cu­pies, with the ex­cep­tion of Mis­chief Reef.” But to re­turn to the Daoist story of the farmer who lost his horse, what is the neg­a­tive pos­si­bil­ity to arise from this pos­i­tive pic­ture for China?

The South China Sea is en­closed by the first is­land chain stretch­ing from Ja­pan to Tai­wan and the Philip­pines and down past Bor­neo. There is a sec­ond is­land chain. This tracks from Sakhalin, Ja­pan, through Guam, north­ern Aus­tralia, In­done­sia and the Pa­cific is­lands. The sec­ond is­land chain re­sem­bles an Amer­i­can perime­ter. China’s de­fen­sive strat­egy would, as strate­gic para­dox dic­tates, re­quire pro­ject­ing power to the sec­ond is­land chain. This is part of the so-called an­ti­ac­cess/area de­nial (A2/AD) strat­egy. But this chal­lenge need not be too much of a mis­for­tune for China if re-con­cep­tu­alised as balanc­ing pat­terns of in­flu­ence. Its soft power of de­vel­op­ing oth­ers through aid and in­vest­ment projects – China is ex­pected to over­take Ja­pan as the Pa­cific is­lands’ third largest donor – will likely have a mod­er­at­ing ef­fect on fu­ture ten­sions. – Pol­icy Fo­rum

Rosita Dellios is an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions and as­so­ci­ate dean of stu­dent af­fairs and ser­vice qual­ity at Bond Univer­sity.

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