One year has passed since the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague dismissed China’s claims to a huge swathe of the South China Sea. However, the court ruling appears to have practically been made a dead letter, as the Philippines, which launched the suit against China in the court, has subsequently chosen to seek a negotiated settlement on the issue with Beijing.
Nevertheless, the significance of the legally binding ruling has not been lost. China should exercise self-restraint and stop any action that could heighten tensions, such as militarization of manmade islands in the area.
The arbitration court concluded that the so-called Nine-Dash Line, which surrounds most parts of the South China Sea, forming an area over which China claims to have historical rights, is without basis under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Moreover, the court ruled that none of the Spratly islands is within China’s exclusive economic zone.
China rejected the ruling, but chose to reconcile with the Philippines out of concern about the impact of the court decision.
When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visited China in October last year, Beijing offered assistance totaling over 2.7 trillion yen, and held bilateral talks on the South China Sea issue to effectively shelve the ruling.
China also held consultations on a South China Sea code of conduct with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and agreed on a draft framework for the code in May this year. By creating a framework for consultations with countries with which it is involved in sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea, China has apparently attempted to eliminate the involvement of Japan and the United States, which are urging Beijing to accept the ruling.
However, the South China Sea hosts an important trade route for many countries. It is only natural for Japan and the United States to demand freedom of navigation and the maintenance of order in the area in accordance with international law.
U.S. President Donald Trump, who has placed priority on the U.S. alliance with China in responding to the North Korean situation, has avoided proactive involvement in the South China Sea issue. Still, the Trump administration has been increasing pressure on China since the U.S. conducted its first freedom-of-navigation operation in May.
Many Asian countries view the United States as an indispensable force to counterbalance China, which is increasing its economic and military might. These countries are increasingly wary of China’s steady deployment of weapons to manmade islands in the South China Sea and other moves in the area.
China’s growth strategy — which includes the Belt and Road Initiative, a Silk Road economic zone that President Xi Jinping has advocated — can be steadily implemented on the premise that the situation of the South China Sea is stable.
If China were to launch a new move to step up its rule of the South China Sea in defiance of the arbitration court ruling, Beijing’s dialogue with neighboring countries would hit a snag. As a neighbor, Japan should urge China to exercise self-restraint.