Tensions remain high in one corner of Southeast Asia following a ruling by the International Court of Justice last week that the Chinese government is refusing to accept. On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which is based in The Hague, ruled that Beijing does not have any historic right to islands in the South China Sea, which China claims as sovereign territory.
The decision represents a victory for the Philippines in its legal challenge to China’s claims, launched in 2013. China meanwhile refuses to recognize the jurisdiction of the international court, and is this week holding military exercises in part of the South China Sea. Assistant Professor of Government and Asian Studies Christopher Heurlin shared some of his thoughts on the issue.
What is the regional significance of this dispute?
The South China Sea dispute is significant because the maritime territorial claims represent one of the most contentious issues in China’s relations with Southeast Asia. China had been relatively successful at improving relations with nations in that region up until the early 2000s, but has since become much more assertive in pressing its claims to large amounts of territory also claimed by other states. This decision only involved the Philippines, but other countries with claims to the area—particularly Vietnam—are watching this closely.
How significant is the South China Sea issue to the average Chinese person?
It is a moderately important issue for the average Chinese, but certainly not as important as other disputed areas like Taiwan and Tibet. Any of these disputes that involve historical claims to territory play into the narrative that China suffered humiliations at the hands of foreign powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and that now the West is attempting to contain China’s rise.
How concerned are you about the challenges of enforcing this decision?
Although legally binding, this verdict will be difficult to implement because there is no mechanism for enforcement, and China has already rejected the verdict. On the other hand, China cannot enforce its claims to exclusive control over the South China Sea because the United States has asserted that there is freedom of navigation in the area and has sent the US Navy through there many times. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy cannot exclude the US Navy, so in a certain sense it is likely that the status quo will be maintained.