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China Diplomatic Victory Could Be Short Lived

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi, attends the 23rd ASEAN regional retreat meeting in Vientiane, Laos, July 26, 2016.

With assertive rhetoric, China appears to have scored a diplomatic victory in the past week, defying the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) ruling against its sweeping claims in the South China Sea, which some argue may run the risk of making the tribunal award irreverent.

But others believe China will still have to face the ruling’s long-term impact, which will strengthen cases where its claims in the disputed waters will continue to be contested.

And Beijing's upcoming bilateral talks with other claimants including the Philippines and Vietnam will be made on the basis of international law, said Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Asia.

“In other words, they [the Philippines and Vietnam] are saying, ‘Okay, we can talk. But we are not going to speak on your terms. We’re going to speak on our terms and our terms are on the basis of international law,” Huxley said.

Thus, it would be misleading to expect immediate development as the ruling’s long-term implications may take years, if not decades, to materialize, the Singapore-based researcher added.

Diplomatic maneuver

Earlier this week, Beijing "flexed its muscles" in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) decision to delete any reference to China or the arbitration case on ASEAN's joint communique after its meeting of foreign ministers in Laos.

That was seen as another diplomatic win for China after it had pressured the 10-nation group into retracting a statement in mid-June.

Upon the communique’s release Monday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters he believed “the fever has finally come down,” while "pointing fingers" at what he called outside forces, which he accused of having stirred up the fever among the waterway’s claimants.

Wang described the tribunal’s award as “prescribing a dose of the wrong medicine, which will not help cure the disease.”

He then lambasted the trilateral statement issued by the U.S., Japan and Australia later Wednesday for “fanning the flames” of regional tensions after the three allies urged China not to construct military outposts and reclaim land in the disputed waters as a show of support for other Asian claimants.

South China Sea Territorial Claims
South China Sea Territorial Claims

The Chinese military on Thursday announced plans to hold joint exercises with Russian forces in September in the South China Sea. The drills are aimed at deepening relations between the two militaries and boosting their capacity to respond to maritime threats, ministry spokesman Yang Yujun told a monthly news briefing.

All in all, China has pushed hard on every possible front to rally support behind its ‘non-acceptance’ stance in the dispute.

That includes the premier of a three-minute publicity video on Time Square playing 120 times a day till next Friday, which some in the U.S. media have mocked as a level of boredom exceeding human tolerance.

China’s integrity questioned

It may have saved China's face by pressuring ASEAN into issuing a watered-down statement, but whether Beijing gets to keep its integrity is in question, observers said.

“In the short term, countries may be intimidated, but these are bullying attempts that are remembered, and certainly will not win China points in the end,” said Walden Bello, a senior research fellow at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies in Kyoto, Japan.

“The problem that China faces here is that the more it denounces the ruling, the more credibility it loses,” added Bello, who was formerly a member of the House of Representatives in the Philippines.

The former Philippine parliamentarian, nevertheless, welcomed China’s calls for the resumption of talks with the Philippines, which he said should aim at addressing military de-escalation and territorial claims in the disputed waters separately.

But he also expressed concerns about the difficulty of asking China to demilitarize or denuclearize the area after the Philippines itself has inked an Enhanced Security Cooperation Agreement with the U.S., which he said has done nothing but fuel China’s security fears of the so-called U.S. encirclement.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte chats with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on July 27, 2016, in the Malacañang Palace in Manila, Philippines, before the two held a working lunch.
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte chats with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on July 27, 2016, in the Malacañang Palace in Manila, Philippines, before the two held a working lunch.

Collateral damage

The Philippine’s legal issue and ASEAN’s reaction to the tribunal ruling are perfect examples of how Asian countries are caught between the U.S. security assurance and China’s economic cooperation as collateral damage, said Dan Steinbock, a research director of international business at the India, China and America Institute.

“Focusing on one or the other has never been constructive, but balancing between the two has proved conducive to peace and prosperity in the region,” Steinbock said in an emailed reply, adding that he believes, ever since Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, successful ASEAN leaders have all excelled in the ability of hedging between the two superpowers.

And ASEAN’s member states have known only too well that “international law is one thing while policy realism in the region is another,” he added.

So, the probability of accidental conflicts in the region continues to rise, which requires the cooperation of all concerned parties to de-escalate through confidence-building and negotiations, Steinbock argued.