Will Hague Tribunal's South China Sea Ruling Inflame U.S.-China Tensions? | KERA News

Will Hague Tribunal's South China Sea Ruling Inflame U.S.-China Tensions?

Jul 13, 2016
Originally published on July 13, 2016 12:43 pm

On Tuesday, an international tribunal soundly rejected Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea, an area where China has been building islands and increasing its military activity.

The case before the international tribunal in the Hague was brought by the Philippines, challenging what's widely seen as a territorial grab by Beijing. The tribunal essentially agreed. Beijing immediately said the decision was null and void and that it would ignore it. There are concerns now that the tribunal's decision could inflame tensions between the U.S. and China.

Daniel Russel, the State Department's senior diplomat for East Asia, says he wasn't surprised by China's response to the tribunal's decision.

"Certainly, they're going to need time to regroup from what was a — let's be frank — a setback," he says. "The ruling was quite definitive in its rejection of China's arguments."

The big question now is what action, if any, Beijing will take in the wake of the tribunal's decision. Russel says the U.S. hopes it will be a diplomatic one, in which all the claimants in the region's ferocious territorial disputes can be involved.

Both the U.S. and China are already showing military prowess in the region. A U.S. aircraft carrier strike group and other vessels have been patrolling the South China Sea, and China began naval exercises near the disputed Paracel Islands last week.

Marvin Ott, an Asia specialist at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, warns that Beijing may decide to harden its resolve, focusing on a large sandbank — the Scarborough Shoal — which is also claimed by the Philippines.

"China will react by trying to, in effect, harden their position on Scarborough Shoal by starting a process of militarization, dredging and generally turning Scarborough into the kind of outpost of Chinese power," Ott says.

This would be seen as a clear provocation, because the Scarborough Shoal is very close to the Philippines, which is a treaty ally of the U.S.

American forces would be bound to come to the aid of the Philippines if there were a confrontation with China over the Scarborough Shoal. But Russel says he doesn't see anything to suggest China would relish a conflict.

"I don't think the Chinese leadership is under any illusions about how strongly the U.S. would oppose the use of force or even the threat of force against a neighboring, sovereign state, let alone against an American treaty ally," he says.

The U.S. says China will be in violation of international law if it ignores Tuesday's South China Sea ruling — because it's signed onto and ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which is the basis for the deliberations. But MIT political scientist M. Taylor Fravel, who specializes in the study of maritime disputes, says China sees that view as hypocritical, because although the U.S. has signed the treaty, it's never ratified it.

"It creates a perception in Chinese eyes that U.S. actions are not about upholding international law," Fravel says, "but in fact, a much broader geopolitical power, political agenda that the U.S. might have to contain China."

The State Department's Russel rejects that and says the U.S. believes in the spirit of the Law of the Sea: "Not the law of the jungle," he says. "Not the rule of 'Might makes right.' "

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

An international tribunal rejected China claiming territory and even building islands in the South China Sea. One result could be greater tension between China and the U.S. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The case before the international tribunal in The Hague was brought by the Philippines. It was challenging what's widely seen as a territorial grab by Beijing in the South China Sea. The tribunal essentially agreed. Beijing immediately said the decision was null and void and that it would ignore it. Daniel Russell, the State Department's senior diplomat for East Asia, says he wasn't surprised by that response.

DANIEL RUSSELL: Certainly, they're going to need time to regroup from what was a - let's be frank - a setback.

NORTHAM: The big question is what action, if any, Beijing will take in the wake of the tribunal's decision. Russell says the U.S. hopes it will be a diplomatic one, where are all the claimants in the region's ferocious territorial disputes can be involved. But Marvin Ott, an Asia specialist at Johns Hopkins University, says Beijing may decide to harden its resolve, focusing on a large sandbank also claimed by the Philippines.

MARVIN OTT: The Chinese will react by trying to, in effect, harden their position on Scarborough Shoal by starting a process of militarization, dredging and generally turning Scarborough into the kind of outpost of Chinese power.

NORTHAM: Ott says this would be seen as a clear provocation because Scarborough Shoal is very close to the Philippines, which is a treaty ally of the U.S. American forces would be bound to come to the aid of the Philippines if there were a confrontation with China over the Scarborough Shoal. The State Department's Russell says he doesn't see anything to suggest China would relish a conflict, let alone with the U.S.

RUSSELL: I don't think that the Chinese leadership is under any illusions about how strongly the U.S. would oppose the use of force or even the threat of force against a neighboring sovereign state, let alone against an American treaty ally.

NORTHAM: The U.S. says China it would be in violation of international law if it ignores the South China Sea ruling because it signed on to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which is the basis for the deliberations. But Taylor Fravel, who specializes in maritime disputes at MIT, says China sees that as hypocritical because although the U.S. has signed the treaty, it's never ratified it.

TAYLOR FRAVEL: It creates the perception in Chinese eyes that U.S. actions are not about upholding international law but, in fact, a much broader geopolitical or parapolitical agenda that the U.S. might have to contain China.

NORTHAM: The State Department's Daniel Russell rejects that and says the U.S. believes in the spirit of the Law of the Sea.

RUSSELL: Not the law of the jungle, not the rule of might makes right.

NORTHAM: Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.