- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Beijing faces a perilous crossroads after an international tribunal decisively ruled against China’s territorial claims to the highly disputed waterways of the South China Sea, with the rest of the world waiting to see how it will respond to the first major global check to its aggressive actions in the Pacific.

Acting on a challenge filed by the Philippines, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled unanimously Tuesday that China used an “ill-defined history” as the basis for its claims of control in the Spratly Islands, the Scarborough Shoal, the Fiery Cross Reef and other strategic points in the South China Sea. Control of those obscure outposts would back claims to the resource-rich sea as well as control over traffic in one of the world’s most heavily used commercial sea routes.

But Beijing’s interpretation failed to recognize legitimate territorial claims to those areas by other regional powers in the Pacific, tribunal members said. Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Taiwan have advanced claims in the South China Sea that clash with China‘s. The U.S. Navy has repeatedly challenged China’s claims as well.

The Vietnamese Foreign Ministry quickly issued a statement praising the tribunal’s decision.

Beijing’s immediate and angry response to the ruling, coupled with its repeated vow to not adhere to the tribunal’s authority, has Washington and the international community on edge. They are waiting to see whether Chinese President Xi Jinping will express his country’s grievances through diplomatic means or military escalation.

China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea shall under no circumstances be affected by those awards. China opposes and will never accept any claim or action based on those awards,” according to a statement by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the U.S., accused the tribunal of “professional incompetence.” In an address to the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies on Tuesday afternoon, he warned that the broad ruling will spawn more confrontation in an already tense region.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry called the decision “an important contribution to the shared goal of a peaceful resolution to disputes in the South China Sea.”

Daniel Kritenbrink, a senior White House official dealing with Asia policy, called on all sides to accept the ruling and said the Obama administration would back any resolution negotiated fairly and peacefully by the countries in the region.

But Mr. Kritenbrink said the U.S. won’t accept “the emergence of a different set of rules in the South China Sea” threatening 70 years of regional stability, according to The Associated Press.

“The United States strongly supports the rule of law. We support efforts to resolve territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea peacefully, including through arbitration,” he said in a statement released shortly after the tribunal issued its findings.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill praised the ruling and said the U.S. and its allies would uphold the decision of the tribunal, which has no independent means to enforce its findings.

“Regrettably, in recent years, there have been disturbing signs that China has chosen to employ a policy of intimidation and coercion toward its neighbors in the South China Sea, East China Sea and elsewhere,” said Sen. Daniel Sullivan, Alaska Republican, “and is increasingly rejecting its duty to protect freedom of the seas as a responsible stakeholder.”

Precedents on zoning

China has cited its own precedents to establish “exclusive economic zones” in the disputed territories to bring them under the Chinese flag. In recent years, Beijing also has been occupying and building up rocky outcroppings in the South China Sea — including many near the Philippines’ coastline — to bolster its claims.

Mr. Xi and other Chinese leaders may have trouble dealing with popular anger at the ruling after stoking nationalistic claims to the South China Sea.

Beijing resident Ding Chennan told the AP, “I think China should take actions to tell other countries that we are not weak.”

But tribunal members found that many of the sites in the Spratly chain could not be technically deemed islands because they cannot sustain a “human community or independent economic life.”

Since those islands cannot be inhabited, according to the tribunal, they cannot be annexed or claimed by China or any other Pacific nation.

But the court did rule that portions of the Second Thomas Shoal and Reed Bank in the Spratlys fell under the domain of the Philippines.

In an op-ed in the state-run Xinhua News Agency published Thursday, Beijing characterized the tribunal as “illegal and ridiculous” and called into doubt the “questionable selection” of its members and its history of “flawed jurisdictional findings.” Beijing said it prefers bilateral negotiations with the smaller countries on its periphery to solve disputes.

Reports also claim Beijing is planning to establish a no-fly zone over the Spratlys and limit access to the waterways around the island chain in response to the ruling.

Critics said the Obama administration’s reliance on the tribunal’s authority to persuade China to curb its regional ambitions is another example of the White House’s miscalculation of Beijing’s resolve to dominate the Pacific.

“International law alone will do little to deter China’s brazen use of force to seize territory in the sea. The enduring question is whether the United States can build a coalition of regional allies to stop China,” said John Yoo, former deputy assistant attorney general and international law analyst at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.

Characterizing the Obama administration’s approach to containing China as “sadly irresolute,” Mr. Yoo said the construction of a viable alliance of Asian nations in the Pacific to counteract Beijing’s expansion in the South China Sea and elsewhere will be a priority for the next president, whoever it is.

China’s unyielding stance over its territorial assertions in the South China Sea is one of several overt messages Beijing is broadcasting to the U.S. and its allies in the Pacific, Dean Cheng, senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, said earlier this month.

Defense Department analysts note that China is “focused on developing the capabilities they deem necessary to deter or defeat adversary power projection and counter third-party — including U.S. — intervention during a crisis or conflict.”

Over the long term, “China’s military modernization is producing capabilities that have the potential to reduce core U.S. military technological advantages,” the Pentagon said in an April report.

It remains unclear whether China will exercise those capabilities in form or fashion in the wake of the tribunal’s decision.

“The world will be watching to see whether China chooses a path of diplomacy and cooperation or continues to walk a long one of confrontation with its neighbors,” Abraham Denmark, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, warned House lawmakers last week.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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