Disputes over sovereignty in the South China Sea: Is China’s lobbying and dividing policy a failure?

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Based on groundless arguments, notably the claim of the irrational “nine - dashed line” map covering nearly the entire South China Sea, China has insistently asserted its sovereignty in the South China Sea and simultaneously conducted massive actions that cause regional tensions, violate international law and slow down the negotiations of the Code of Conduct (COC). [READ MORE]

Therefore, regional countries as well as the international community have expressed opposition and requested China to halt wrongful actions, notably the Philippine brave decision to bring China to the arbitral tribunal set up under Annex VII of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In response to the international community’s protest, China has taken numerous actions: attempting to lobby the arbitral tribunal or dividing ASEAN nations so that the Association would fail to reach a consensus over the South China Sea issue. However, irrespective of China’s “back - door” actions, a number of recent incidents have proved that it would not be easy for China to succeed.

From lobbying to dividing actions

In the Philippine lawsuit against China, China’s position is to protest the lawsuit, refuse to participate the proceedings and refuse to accept the tribunal’s award. Nevertheless, several international scholars believe that despite China’s apparent opposition to the lawsuit, the country is secretly taking “back - door” actions in order to avoid disadvantageous award against it at the international court. According to sources reported by Reuters, Chinese diplomats and legal experts have been closely following development of the case and taking informal activities to respond to the case.

Some of that work has been handled by the Chinese Embassy at the Hague the establishment of a formal line of communication with the tribunal by the embassy staff.

Having examined the Tribunal’s statements and the rules, Reuters confirmed that China is allowed to communicate with the tribunal via its ambassador to The Hague, while the court also updates China on trial proceedings and opportunities for submission of counter - arguments.

What China has been doing makes researchers fear that the tribunal may announce an unjust verdict. "It appears the tribunal panel is bending over backwards to accommodate China's interests and appear even - handed to both the Philippines and China”, said Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore's Institute of South East Asian Studies.

Toward ASEAN countries, China makes the best use of its relations with these countries, economic advantages, assistance packages and the huge “Maritime Silk Road in the 21st century” project to lobby and divide ASEAN countries, preventing the Association from issuing a joint statement at a foreign ministers’ meeting in 2012 that never happened in the history of the Association.

Far from success

Reality shows that China has put forward various “non - transparent” actions with an aim to gaining advantages in the South China Sea disputes. Nevertheless, no matter the immediate outcomes, in the long - run, China’s efforts will not be successful, since China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea are groundless and not in compliance with international law, and at the same time China has continuously caused tensions in the South China Sea. Recent incidents have made this clear.

Firstly, regardless of China’s “back - door” attempts to lobby the arbitral tribunal with a hope the court would reject jurisdiction in the Philippine lawsuit, on October 29th 2015, in favor of the Philippines, the tribunal said it had jurisdiction in the case against China and would hear Manila’s suit against Beijing over the South China Sea dispute. The tribunal said it would hold hearings in the coming time in order to listen to relevant parties’ arguments in the mentioned case. This was a hard slap on Beijing’s attempts to dismiss this case as the tribunal did confirm its jurisdiction over the case in accordance with international law.

Second, following the above case, it was Indonesia’s turn to raise its voice as the country recently spoke up against China, even though Indonesia, a non - claimant in the South China Sea, used to keep a neutral stance. Luhut Panjaitan, Indonesian Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs, told the press on 11th November 2015 in Jakarta that the Indonesian could bring Beijing to an international court if China’s claim to the majority of the South China Sea and part of Indonesian territory is not resolved through dialogue. Luhut said Jakarta was working very hard with Beijing on the “nine - dashed line” (or “cow’s tongue line” or “U - shaped line”) groundlessly identified by China in the South China Sea “biting” into Indonesia’s Natuna islands. Luhut Panjaitan stressed: “We would like to see a solution on this in the near future through dialogue, or we could bring it to the International Criminal Court”. This could possibly result from the decision by the arbitral tribunal in the Hague that it had jurisdiction in the Philippine legal case against China. If this case is a success, it may create a precedence for the claimants to use international law to settle disputes in a public and transparent manner without the use of force.

Another matter worth noticing is Malaysia’s behavior over recent months in the South China Sea dispute. Previously, despite a claimant, Malaysia consistently pursued a soft policy that avoids confrontation and direct criticism in its relations with China since it has a good relationship with China. However, recently on 18th October 2015, at the Xiangshan Forum launched by China where participants were expected to express support for China, Malaysia’s Armed Forces Chief General Zulkefli Mohd Zin said that China’s construction work on islands in the disputed South China Sea is “unwarranted provocation”. It can be said that such a public comment is rare in the context that, as mentioned above, Malaysia has always exercised self - restraint and refrained from confrontation and even indirect criticism against China in the South China Sea issue. This time, Malaysia’s comment has proved that no matter what assistance packages has China offered to lure Malaysia, China did not seem to get what it aimed for. Indeed, Chinese actions have infringed international law and threatened regional security so seriously that countries with sound foreign policies cannot just be ignorant.

Those recent incidents pose a question on whether China’s lobbying and dividing policy on winning advantages in the South China Sea dispute has been and will be a failure. If so, whether or not should China adopt a different approach to addressing the South China Sea disputes with its neighboring countries through peaceful means in accordance with international law. That is what the international community is expecting from a responsible power like China./.