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Survey of newspaper editorials on tribunal ruling on South China Sea dispute

By Tsugumasa Uchihata

 

The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) based in The Hague, Netherlands has handed down a ruling that totally rejects China’s position on the South China Sea. How to take advantage of this ruling to put a stop to China’s unilateral maritime advances is now a major issue for Japan’s diplomacy.

 

Commenting on the significance of the ruling, Sankei Shimbun wrote: “It is of great significance that the tribunal ruled that the ‘nine-dash line’ that China is claiming has no basis in international law. China’s argument that it has historical rights over the entire area within the nine-dash line, which makes up the bulk of the South China Sea, has been rejected completely.”

 

Asahi Shimbun strongly urged China to accept the tribunal’s verdict. It pointed out, “This is a question of whether China wants to become a nation that pursues development responsibly under the international legal order or a nation that challenges this order. The Xi Jinping regime needs to realize that it is at a crossroads.” Likewise, Nihon Keizai Shimbun noted that “with this ruling, China will have to make a decision on whether it will respect the current international legal order.”

 

Sankei stressed the importance of putting pressure on China through international cooperation. It said: “It is necessary for Japan, the U.S., and Southeast Asian and European countries to unite and press China to accept the ruling.” It urged vigilance against further unilateral actions by China and cited the possibility of China designating an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea or starting reclamation at the Scarborough Reef close to the Philippines. Yomiuri Shimbun suggested that “it is essential for the U.S. to cooperate with the Philippines and other countries to conduct patrols near the artificial islands to demonstrate ‘freedom of navigation’.”

 

All newspapers reiterated their criticism of China’s high-handed maritime advances. Mainichi Shimbun noted that “China has been building artificial islands on seven reefs in the South China Sea under its effective control since late 2013, and airports, ports, and other military facilities have been constructed on these islands.” Asahi Shimbun observed, “The Philippines’ decision to file a case was triggered by China’s sending government ships to seize control over reefs in waters west of Luzon Island.” Sankei and Nikkei also cited the fact that a Chinese naval vessel had entered the contiguous zone near the Senkaku Islands (in Okinawa) for the first time, calling attention to the situation in the East China Sea, which directly affects Japan.

 

Commenting on the ASEM meeting held in Mongolia shortly after the PCA ruling, Nikkei lauded Japan’s efforts at this international conference. It wrote: “It was not easy to unite to apply pressure. Yet, the European countries indicated their position that the PCA ruling needs to be respected and the ASEM chair’s statement managed to call for ‘settlement of disputes based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea’.” Sankei concluded, “This was a meeting where the absurdity of China’s position and its isolation in the international community became evident.” It asserted, “Although China called the ruling a piece of ‘waste paper’ and criticized the court proceedings as a ‘political farce,’ the international community had a completely different opinion. China came face-to-face with this reality.”

 

The first Japan-China summit meeting since November took place on the sidelines of ASEM. Asahi and Mainichi both carried editorials emphasizing the importance of bilateral dialogue. While criticizing China’s attitude on the PCA verdict, Asahi argued, “The important thing is not to provoke conflict and to create an environment for level-headed dialogue. The two sides should try to find concrete solutions through discussions to determine what can be done to restore the international legal order and stability in the East and South China Sea.

 

The South China Sea was also taken up as a major issue at the ASEAN foreign ministerial meetings. China is trying to rally countries receiving generous economic aid from it to counter international pressure on it to accept the PCA ruling. It is also necessary to watch such moves closely. (Slightly abridged)

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