By Bonnie Glaser and Ely Ratner, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bonnie Glaser is senior adviser for Asia in the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Ely Ratner is senior fellow and deputy director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. The views expressed are their own.
With the world watching Ukraine with wary eyes, the U.S. Navy’s lead admiral in the Pacific suggested Asia could face a similar crisis if the continent’s other major power continues on its current path.
Since 2009, China has stepped up what Philippine officials have called a “creeping invasion” in the South China Sea. Although less dramatic than Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Beijing has been bullying its neighbors to assert and advance an expansive set of territorial and maritime claims encompassed by its “nine-dash line,” which skirts the coastlines of Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines and gobbles up islands, rocks and resources in the process.
Seeking to make new facts on the ground (or, more literally, on the water), Beijing has permitted and encouraged its paramilitary law enforcement ships and navy to engage in persistent harassment and intimidation of non-Chinese fisherman, military vessels and energy companies seeking to go about their business in the South China Sea. Earlier this month, Chinese coast guard vessels reportedly interfered with the delivery of supplies to Filipino marines stationed on Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef near Reed Bank that is believed to be rich in oil and gas. If such incidents are allowed to continue, armed conflict could be around the corner.
But what distinguishes the contest over sovereignty in the Asia-Pacific from events unfolding more than 5,000 miles away in Eastern Europe is that hope remains for a peaceful solution that eschews coercion and force in exchange for international law and diplomacy.
Outmatched by China’s rapidly growing military, and dispirited by 17 years of failed bilateral diplomacy to settle its disputes with Beijing, the Philippines decided in January 2013 that its only recourse was to submit its claims to compulsory arbitration under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which governs international rules and rights on the world’s seas. This came on the heels of China’s illegal seizure and occupation (continued to this day) of the contested Scarborough Shoal off of the Philippines’ west coast.
Despite Beijing’s unrelenting efforts to pressure Manila to drop the case, the Philippines plans to file its final “memorial” at the end of March, which will detail its case that many of China’s claims, including the notorious “nine-dash line,” have no standing in international or customary law. Legal experts predict a ruling could come down as early as mid- or late 2015.
In the meantime, countries in the Asia-Pacific – and the international community – have an opportunity to decide what kind of world they want to live in: one governed by rules and institutions; the other by brute force.
The underlying problem, however, is that many governments are reluctant to publicly support a process that Beijing opposes.
In February last year, China formally rejected the proceedings, arguing that the Philippines case is “factually flawed” and “contains false accusations.” To date, China has sought to undermine the legitimacy of the tribunal by failing to file its own legal case and exercise its right to appoint members to the arbitration panel. Nevertheless, China’s refusal to participate will not prevent the arbitration from proceeding or subvert the binding nature of the judgment. If Beijing ignores the tribunal’s ruling – assuming that its judges find they have jurisdiction and subsequently rule in Manila’s favor – China will be in clear violation of its international legal obligations.
It is incumbent upon leaders in Canberra, Paris, Berlin, Jakarta and elsewhere to say as much.
Now is the time for like-minded countries to take a public stance on this issue. If more countries – including leading European nations, Australia and especially some of the ASEAN countries – speak out in favor of the right to use arbitration to resolve maritime disputes (while not siding with Manila), then the reputational cost to China of flouting international law will increase. Beijing may then be compelled to rethink its current position of defiance. It may even avail itself of the opportunity to participate in the tribunal and present a legal defense of its claims, including the nine-dash line.
The low profile taken by states both nearby and far away is to some extent understandable. Their economic dependence on China is growing. What is to be gained by risking Beijing’s ire, which in the Philippines case has resulted in flagrant Chinese diplomatic, economic, and other forms of pressure?
But waiting quietly for the ruling is a losing strategy. If there are no penalties for defying a binding ruling of an international court, then China will assuredly ignore any decisions it dislikes, further destabilizing the region and closing off a potentially promising path for the peaceful management of otherwise noxious disputes. The disruptive consequences would also likely reverberate beyond the region, as China’s willingness to play a constructive and positive role in the international system would be rightfully called into question.
If Asia wishes to prevent events in its own neighborhood that mirror those unfolding today in the Ukraine, it must seize this remarkably clear-cut opportunity to support the development of a rules-based system in Asia. Staying silent on the Philippines arbitration case is a tacit vote against such a future.