Military tensions in the South China Sea could escalate quickly despite calls for a peaceful and moderate response to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague’s ruling that China has no claim to the disputed South China Sea.
The Hague on Tuesday ruled that China has no legal basis to claim historic rights to the bulk of the South China Sea, in which $5 trillion worth of shipborne trade passes through each year and is potentially rich in oil and natural gas.
China, which boycotted the proceedings, was defiant in the face of the ruling, saying it rejected The Hague’s findings and reserves the right to protect its sovereignty over the area, including setting up an air defence zone.
“China will take all necessary measures to protect its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests,” the state-run People’s Daily said in a front page story on Wednesday.
In its ruling on Tuesday in response to a petition brought by the Philippines, The Hague said: “There was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’.”
The ‘nine-dash line’ refers to the demarcation line on a 1947 map that includes 90 per cent of the disputed area.
Most of the area of the South China Sea claimed by China is far closer to the mainlands of Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia than it is to mainland China.
Tensions in the region only increased after China reclaimed land in massive dredging operations that built up sandbars into islands that are now home to ports, airfields and lighthouses.
The ruling also found that Chinese law enforcement patrols had risked colliding with Philippine fishing vessels in parts of the sea and caused irreparable damage to coral reefs with construction work building artificial islands.
The ruling is binding but the Permanent Court of Arbitration has no powers of enforcement.
Chinese President Xi Jinping rejected the decision, saying; “China will never accept any claim or action based on those awards.”
Presenting a Chinese government paper on The Hague’s findings on Wednesday, Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said China would establish an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea “if our security is being threatened”.
China set up an ADIZ in 2013 over the similarly disputed East China Seas, demanding any aircraft passing through to file flight plans and identify themselves.
“Whether we need to set one up in the South China Sea depends on the level of threat we receive,” Mr Liu said.
The ‘militarising’ of the South China Sea
While the United States has not taken an official position on the South China Sea, it is an ally of the Philippines and China’s expansion in the South China Sea is seen as a direct threat to the US military dominance in the Pacific.
The US Navy has been carrying out regular Freedom of Navigation Patrols through the waters, each of which has been met with an angry response from Chinese military personnel in the area.
Head of the US Pacific command Admiral Harry Harris in February warned that China is “clearly militarising the South China [Sea]”.
“You’d have to believe in a flat Earth to think otherwise,” Admiral Harris said.
International law must be obeyed
In Australia, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told a media conference that international law must be adhered to.
“All countries, large and small have benefited enormously from this system, which facilitates trade and enables disputes to be resolved in accordance with rules rather than by coercive means,” Mr Turnbull said.
“We have no claims of our own. But we insist that it is absolutely vital that all countries abide by international law, settle disputes peacefully and in the context of this particular dispute … that both countries abide by the decision of the tribunal.”
Labor’s defence spokesman Stephen Conroy has accused China of bullying other nations over the South China Sea.
“China’s been engaged in an aggressive and at-times bullying performance, and has now been called out by the international court,” Mr Conroy told ABC radio.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, meanwhile, said Australia would continue to exercise its right to Freedom of Navigation in the region.
China’s Ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, told the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington that the US is engaging in military exercises that constituted “military coercion”.
US State Department spokesman John Kirby asserted that the United States, and the world, expect China to commit to non-militarisation.
“The world is watching to see if China is really the global power it professes itself to be, and the responsible power that it professes itself to be.”