By: Elena Grace Flores
The Truibunal Hague ruling at the Permanent Court of Arbitration found no basis for China’s expansive claims of exclusive control of the South China Sea and said its foundation building were bogus. Only naturally habitable islands generate 12 nautical miles of territorial control and a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone: China can’t manufacture sovereign territory at sea by reclaiming lands. As a result, the tribunal said, China was violating the Philippines’ sovereign rights — along with damaging coral reefs and allowing Chinese fishermen to catch endangered sea turtles. “China has inflicted irreparable harm to the marine environment, built a large artificial island in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and destroyed evidence of the natural conditions of features in the South China Sea that formed part of the parties’ dispute.”
Indeed, the outrageous behavior by China was noted, not unlike Russian President Vladimir Putin’s early incursion into Ukraine. China can’t be allowed to unlawfully take control of international waters encompassing some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, rich fishing grounds and potentially valuable energy deposits. The question is how to respond. Six governments — China, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam — make claims on the Spratlys, but the U.N. tribunal wasn’t concerned with settling the overarching dispute. China’s island-building gambit escalated tensions because it is fortifying the artificial islands (at least one has an airstrip) and stationing naval or coast guard vessels in the vicinity to scare away boats and planes that come too close. Now China knows its activities are unlawful; as reported by Chicago Tribune
It continued; The United States, concerned mainly with keeping international waters open for all, has sent guided missile destroyers to the Spratlys several times on freedom-of-navigation sailings to make the point that the U.S. doesn’t recognize China’s claims. Those runs through international waters are effective because nothing says “just moseying past, which I’m allowed to do,” like a flotilla from the U.S. 7th Fleet. If pushing the point with another quick sailing risks flaring tensions, there is no need to rush back tomorrow. Beijing’s been humiliated; let the decision sink in. But China needs to hear the message immediately, from Washington, its ally the Philippines, and the other governments with South China Sea claims that the days of Chinese sand castle-building are over. The logical strategy for the U.S.: Keep confronting the Chinese, but leave Beijing room to save face and quietly depart its pretend islands. Since the U.S. is on guard, the Philippines’ neutrality should minimize the tension.