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China urged to respect UN arbitral court ruling

In this photo taken March 29, 2014, a Philippine flag flutters from the deck of the Philippine Navy ship LT 57 Sierra Madre off Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. China has intensified the drumbeat of its opposition to a milestone ruling expected Tuesday, July 12, 2016, by an international tribunal that could threaten its expansive claims in the South China Sea. AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

MANILA, Philippines - Netizens called for #CHexit or a Chinese exit from contested waters, while Manila urged Beijing to respect whatever ruling is issued today by a UN-backed tribunal on the two countries’ dispute in the South China Sea.

With over 40 nations – including the richest and most powerful ones – voicing support for arbitration to settle the maritime row, the Philippines said the world expects China to respect and uphold the verdict of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the case filed by Manila contesting Beijing’s expansive claim in the South China Sea and West Philippine Sea.

The tribunal will issue its ruling today at approximately 11 a.m. in The Hague (5 p.m. in Manila).

“We are calling on China to also do the same thing, to respect and comply with the decision especially when the decision is not in favor of China,” said Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose.

Victoria Bataclan, ambassador to Belgium and Luxembourg and head of the Philippine Mission to the European Union, said Manila has made clear its readiness to abide by any ruling of the arbitral court.

“Since under UNCLOS an impleaded party is bound by a tribunal’s ruling whether it participates or not, it therefore behooves China, as a law-abiding member of the community of nations, to do likewise,” Bataclan said.

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“The issue of the South China Sea must be raised as widely as possible, because it involves a country whose ability to affect the lives of every one in the planet has increased along with its economic clout,” she said.

“China is indeed on the rise, and the rest of the world, including the European Union, expects her to respect and uphold the basic principles which the international order is based,” she added.

The Philippines is hopeful the tribunal would not give China the “golden key” to a scenario of Beijing’s nine-dash line becoming a “Berlin Wall of the Sea” and a “giant fence” owned exclusively by China.

Ahead of the ruling, Filipinos in China this weekend received mobile phone text messages from their embassy, warning them not to discuss politics in public and to avoid engaging in discussions on social media. They were advised to carry their passports and residency permits with them at all times and to contact the embassy or Chinese police if there are any untoward incidents.

China says much of the building and reclamation work it has been doing in the South China Sea is to benefit the international community, including for civilian maritime navigation.

The official China Daily said on Monday that China will soon start operations of a fifth lighthouse in the South China Sea, on Mischief Reef.

Taiwan is also watching the case closely.

Its single holding of Itu Aba is the biggest feature in the Spratlys and the one some analysts believe has the strongest claim to island status and an exclusive economic zone.

“If the ruling touches on our sovereign rights we will respond strongly,” said deputy foreign minister Leo C.J. Lee to lawmakers in a parliamentary committee session on Monday.

The coast guard, which directly oversees Itu Aba with the support of the military, will not “soften” its defense of the island, coast guard chief Lee Chung-wei added.

Arbitration backers

The Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said 40 countries have voiced support for the arbitral proceedings. They are Albania, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Botswana, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States, Vietnam and members of the European Union. While the last may not have issued individual statements, their support is based on EU statements presented as the position of all members.

Countries supporting China’s position included Afghanistan, Gambia, Kenya, Lesotho, Niger, Sudan, Togo and Vanuatu.

At a US congressional hearing last week, Abraham Denmark, deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia, urged both parties to comply with the ruling. Denmark said it was a chance to determine whether the region’s future will be defined by adherence to international laws or by “raw calculations of power.”

China might use strong rhetoric but not take aggressive action to avoid having the topic dominate the agenda at upcoming multilateral forums, said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Glaser said Chinese officials she’s spoken to say privately they hope the case would not rule entirely in the Philippines’ favor so that Beijing can say in internal discussions that Chinese interests have not been “irreparably harmed.”

Rody factor

A key factor that could change the equation of the consequences of this ruling is how President Duterte decides to respond. His predecessor Benigno Aquino III’s administration filed the case, straining Manila’s relations with Beijing, but Duterte has shown readiness to mend frosty ties with China.

While Duterte has made critical remarks against the US, he has pointed out the benefits of nurturing friendly relations with Beijing, including a Chinese offer of financing railway projects in the Philippines. Duterte’s rise has given China an opening to make inroads in one of America’s closest security allies.

“When it’s favorable to us, let’s talk,” he said. “We are not prepared to go to war, war is a dirty word.”

It remains to be seen, however, how far Duterte can stray from Manila’s critical stance on China’s territorial assertiveness, given his country’s close ties with the US and growing nationalist sentiment against China’s actions.

 Jay Batongbacal, an expert on South China Sea issues at the University of the Philippines, said the government should avoid revealing its cards ahead of potential negotiations with Beijing, “otherwise you lose the leverage that you have.”

Experts say the outcome of the dispute could provide ammunition for other countries involved in disputes with China. Six other countries have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea – China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. In addition, China’s nine-dash line overlaps waters that are part of Indonesia’s internationally recognized exclusive economic zone.

“This is a time for China not to keep pushing forward too aggressively because they could embolden Vietnam and Indonesia to file a case as well,” Glaser said.

 Regardless, the ruling is unlikely to stop China from continuing to pursue more effective control over the sea space and airspace of the South China Sea, Glaser said.

 Over the last few months, the US has held combined exercises by two Navy aircraft carrier strike groups off the coast of the Philippines and freedom of navigation cruises near China’s man-made islands to assert its presence in the Western Pacific. Chinese state media have accused Washington of trying to turn the South China Sea “into a powder keg” and warned it not to underestimate China’s determination to defend its territorial claims.

Chinese warships, fighter jets and submarines have held live-fire war games as part of what the People’s Liberation Army Navy called routine exercises in the week running up to the tribunal’s ruling, drills that were seen at least in part responding to the US presence.

“There’s a real game of nerves going on here with China perhaps assuming that the US is bluffing and the US hoping that China will actually not test American resolve,” Australian National University’s White said.

CHexit

It is time for China to do a #CHexit  from the South China Sea, social media users and activists in the Philippines said yesterday.

Inspired by the Brexit term coined for Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, the catchy new reference for China has quickly gained currency on Facebook, Twitter and protest placards ahead of Tuesday’s verdict on Beijing’s  claims to most of the sea.

“We ask our friends from other countries, especially our brothers and sisters in Southeast Asia, to call for a #CHexit,” Mong Palatino said as he  protested with a small group of people outside the Chinese consulate in Manila. “China should stop bullying its neighbors.”

On social media, some of the messages were more blunt. “China, get out of Philippine territory! #CHEXIT,” wrote @emiletabiar on Twitter.

“The West Philippine Sea is not for you to own. #CHexit,” said @rmcocoba.

Other Filipinos were not amused.

“’CHexit’?!?!? Cringing on this one,” said @titobabis.

Meanwhile,  a senior Chinese diplomat said South China Sea is not on the agenda and should not be discussed at a major summit between Asian and European leaders in Mongolia at the end of the week.

Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou signaled discussion of the South China Sea would not be welcomed at the event, which happens once every two years, as it’s designed to discuss issues between Asia and Europe.

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