South China Sea symposium, Stockholm Sweden. (Photo: Ric Wasserman)

South China Sea symposium, Stockholm Sweden. (Photo: Ric Wasserman)


In less than three decades China has become the world’s second-largest economy. 

To pull in resources to raise living standards for its 1.4 billion people, China has been pursuing an aggressive policy in the region – boldly declaring its right to huge maritime regions off its coast. 

But in a landmark ruling the Hague international court recently dismissed China’s claims, unanimously. The fallout was discussed recently at an international symposium in Stockholm, Sweden.

Ric Wasserman has more.

The international conference on power shifts and peace in Southeast Asia saw three renowned academics square off – focusing on China’s emergence as a regional power and the effects of a landmark international judicial ruling.

July 12 was a historic day for the Philippines and its neighbors after years of dispute, said the Philippines foreign department spokesman, Perfecto Yasay. 

“The Philippines welcomes the issuance today, 12 July 2016 of the award by the arbitral tribunal constituted by the permanent court of arbitration with regard to the South China Sea. The Philippines strongly affirms its respect for this milestone decision as an important contribution to ongoing efforts in addressing disputes in the South China Sea,” declared Perfecto Yasay.

The Hague international court threw out China’s claims, even though China has refused to recognize the court’s decision. 

For the Philippines the decision concerns its fishing rights near the contested Panatag islands. 

For several years China has been busy constructing artificial islands in the maritime area, some with airstrips, while turning back fishing boats from the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Japan. 

All part of China’s superpower muscle flexing and greed for access to fish, oil and sea lanes as far as 800 kilometers from its coast. This is the world’s most important waterway. 

Yongwook Ryu, an assistant professor at Australia’s National University, explains the concerns. 

“The Chinese government claims a large chunk of the waters of the South China Sea and if China ends up controlling that area and the government transports that carry natural resources to South Korea would be heavily affected. So that could be our biggest concern.”

Yongwook Ryu is referring to what China calls the 9-dash line, which it claims gives China right to more than 80% of the entire South China Sea. 

But Ryu says he’s not worried about China’s regional domination.

“Koreans are not as concerned about China dominating the region because the US presence is still quite visible throughout the region so a lot of Koreans believe that the US will maintain its stronghold in the region,” Ryu says.

Since the court’s verdict a legal pretext has been created for the United States, Japan and Australia to conduct extensive multilateral navigation maneuvers to test China’s claims in practice – albeit with the risk for military confrontation. 

Beside the Philippines and Korea being affected, Yongwook Ryu says that we must be wary of Japan, where nationalism is on the rise. 

The maritime dispute could trigger military action.

“China looks at Japan and thinks, well, Japan is not as powerful as it used to be in the past but Japanese are more willing to use force now than before. The Japanese government wants to use force within the context of the US defense alliance,” according to Ryu.

Professor Kevin Clements is a professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at New Zealand’s University of Otago. He emphasises that nationalism is becoming a growing and dangerous force in the region. 

“The reemergence of nationalism in Northeast Asia with Japan’s swing to the right and desire to revisit the entire post-war agreement between itself and the rest of the world, is an extremely worrying sign because it generates Chinese nationalism and more importantly aggravates Chinese memories of its humiliation under Japanese occupation in the 1930s.”

The Chinese muscle flexing in the South China Sea has also riled the US, which must defend its regional partners. 

But they have to tread carefully, says Wang Yizou, a professor of International Politics at Beijing University.

“You have to build up a comprehensive relationship with the US. Sometimes there are complications – sometimes a win-win for both. Please be patient. After all, this is a country with one fifth of the world population and it still has a long way to go,” Yizou comments.

China’s president Xi Jinping has defensed the maritime claims as a domestic issue – in a quest to restore the nation to global greatness after long periods of humiliation by bigger powers. 

But despite the Hague ruling, an amicable solution with China is the only way forward, says Kevin Clements.

“Even with that kind of challenge it’s really important that we try and devise institutional mechanisms for ensuring that China has its interests acknowledged and begin figuring out ways that it can begin playing a positive role.”  

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