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What’s to Come: Cooperation, or Militarisation?

24 Apr What’s to Come: Cooperation, or Militarisation?

The Philippines, having taken China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in an attempt to resolve the South China Sea dispute, has put the global spotlight on an issue that has been churning the seas for many years.

While China has refused to be subject to any form of international arbitration, that does not exempt it from possible backlash.

If China – a key player on the world stage – chooses to completely flout the Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling, it could face political and economic consequences.

At the same time, the Tribunal likely recognizes that it is only hearing one side of the story. Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), Simon Tay, told Channel News Asia: “There are many reasons why the Filipino claim is overstated, and the court may actually reject parts of the memorial as being irrelevant or outside the scope of what it can decide.”

This conflict has persisted partly because China and the Philippines have not clarified their claims. China, operating on the historic basis of the nine-dotted line – which it uses to demarcate the areas of the South China Sea that it claims – has not explicitly specified the islands they are claiming. Similarly, the Philippines has failed to qualify the precise limits of their continental shelf and the areas they have the sovereign right of exploring and exploiting.

This poses obstacles to resolving the matter, which is complicated further when the other claimants, such as Vietnam and Malaysia, are factored into the equation.

Additionally, China and the Philippines are dealing with strong nationalistic impulses. China’s nine-dotted line was first shown on a map published by the Kuomintang government in 1947. Recently, China has been striving “to make reality match historical rhetoric”, said Prof Tay.

The Aquino administration claims that China is bullying it into surrendering territory. President Aquino has likened China to Nazi Germany in the lead-up to World War II. Such rhetoric shows that neither country’s leadership wants to appear weak in this dispute.

However, this dispute must be viewed in the context of the relationship between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), as “these ties… are permanent (and) need to be managed over time”, said Prof Tay. The relationship is largely a positive one, in terms of trade, investments, and other areas.

On the dispute’s possible outcome, Prof Tay said that the application of “diplomacy and statesman-like behaviour (would) see another age of China and ASEAN… close together”. If this does not happen, he fears that it would lead to “increasing militarisation of (the Southeast Asian) region, where the only answer to an assertive China will be an omnipresent America”.

Channel NewsAsia’s interview with SIIA Chairman Simon Tay on the South China Sea dispute was aired on Thursday, 10 April 2014.