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By Dries Van Thielen
Tensions in the South-Chinese Sea are up again. In July 2016, the International Court of Justice in The Hague condemned China’s artificial-island building and ruled in favor of the Philippines. When the President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte was in a meeting last week with Chinese secretary general Xi Jinping, and announced that the Philippines will execute the verdict, Mr. Jinping – supposedly – answered: “We’re friends, we don’t want to quarrel with you, we want to maintain the presence of warm relationship, but if you force the issue, we’ll go to war”.
Nine-Dash-Line & Artificial Islands
When Japan lost its South-Chinese Sea territories in the direct aftermath of World War II, China swept in to claim most of these territories – even though the surrounding countries (Vietnam, Philippines) disputed these claims. Ever since China lost territories in the Himalaya (1947)and Taiwan (1949), they have been pursuing to expand their territory over The South-Chinese Sea by enlarging their military power.
It was then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai who drew the now-infamous Nine-Dash line – marking the Chinese claims over the South-Chinese Sea. They are still pursuing Mr. Enlai’s ideas with contemporary technology. China is building artificial islands in the South-Chinese Sea. And now, Beijing was able to claim large portions of the South-Chinese Sea, which is an interesting target for the global economy. The South-Chinese Sea is filled with natural resources like oil and gas. Besides, it is the most frequented shipping-rout in the world.
Neighboring countries are not set up with China overtaking the region. Japan, for example, bought up the disputed island group of Senkaku (Japanese)/ Diaoyutai (Chinese) in 2012 which led to a Cold War in the region. The United States are often prevented from entering the region by a provoking Chinese navy – sometimes threatening to go to war.
China v Philippines
Jonathan Holslag, a professor of International Politics, explained that China’s territorial expansion never escalated for no major threat provoked them. Sure the relationship between China, Japan, The US, etc. is cold. Nonetheless, violence never went further than war rhetoric.
Then, Mr. Duterte brought the Chinese government to court.
According to Business Insider, the president of the Philippines felt obligated by his followers in his country. They claimed that their president was too lenient towards the Chinese government.
However, China never felt threatened by the lawsuit. Firstly, China does not acknowledge the power of the International Court of Justice. They were not represented in The Hague and the court documents literally cite: “The Tribunal notes China’s consistent position that it will not participate in these proceedings and its view that “non-participation in the present arbitration is solidly grounded in international law”. China has also continued to reject the jurisdiction of this Tribunal, notwithstanding the decisions reached in the Tribunal’s Award on Jurisdiction”.
Secondly, the reaction of the international community was underwhelming uninteresting. So far, they only released statements regarding the outcome.
“Do not touch it”
With Duterte’s proposal to execute the The Hague order to drill and start drilling towards the natural oil fields, the situation has changed drastically. It is possible that China might feel threatened and will retaliate. Moments after the meeting, Mr. Jinping urged Mr. Dutarte “not to touch the oil fields”.
It is unclear what might happen next. However, Holslag wrote in 2012:
“Another possibility is the blown-out-of-proportion incident. The China Seas are getting ever more crowded. With expanding fleets of merchant ships, trawlers, surveying vessels, and different sorts of patrol boats, the risk of incidents clearly gets greater […].We have also witnessed how maritime disputes allow countries to change the actual influence over contested areas more easily, in contrast to the maintenance of the legal status quo. The more the China Seas get crowded, the more there will be frictions between the legal stalemates and reality”.