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South China Sea: A Quiet diplomacy needed to calm choppy waters

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15 Jul South China Sea: A Quiet diplomacy needed to calm choppy waters

The much awaited ruling for the South China Sea territorial disputes was announced on Tuesday, July 12. After months of deliberation, the international tribunal in The Hague ruled overwhelmingly in favour of Philippines in the case brought to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), challenging China’s claims in the South China Sea. In the PCA’s press release, the tribunal reiterated that while it clarifies the status of certain maritime features and historic rights, it does not rule on any question of sovereignty.

The ruling of the tribunal has given rise to varying reactions. China, who has refused to participate or accept the arbitral proceedings, issued a statement declaring the award to be null, void and having no binding force. Speaking at a meeting with European leaders, Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated this position while expressing China’s dedication to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea. Philippines, as well as other claimants such as Vietnam, welcomed the ruling. That said, Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay also reiterated the country’s commitment towards peaceful resolution and management of the issue.

ASEAN will not issue a statement in response to the ruling and this has been perceived by some as a reflection of ASEAN disunity. However, given the depth and breadth of ties between ASEAN and China, a quiet diplomacy may be key towards peaceful and mutually beneficial negotiations. While tensions over the South China Sea continue to heat up, there is an opportunity for claimants to de-escalate tensions through bilateral negotiations and peaceful discussions. Though some of the issues may not be fully solved, ASEAN has been seasoned and is experienced enough at keeping and managing these issues below the surface.

As ASEAN strengthens its economy and builds itself into a key economic hub in Asia, it is vital that the grouping continues to engage with major powers – China, its permanent neighbour, is no exception. In recent years, China has emphasised the positive attributes of its growth, through its efforts to create stronger economic ties with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the “One Belt, One Road” initiative. These feature opportunities for cooperation between ASEAN and China to become a more cohesive and prosperous region. It can only be hoped that parties involved do not let the dispute derail these much larger hopes for the region.

Sources:

Full text of statement of China’s Foreign Ministry on award of South China Sea arbitration initiated by Philippines [Xinhua, 12 Jul 2016]

Singapore takes no position on South China Sea claims, calls for restraints
 [The Straits Times, 12 Jul 2016]

Photo Credit: Permanent Court of Arbitration, Jurisdictional Hearing, July 2015