Analysis: The July 12 ruling exposed Chinaâs strategy

Defying all expectations, Manila won a near unanimous victory, scoring in 14 out of its 15 claims against Beijing. Graphics by RP Ocampo

Analysis: The July 12 ruling exposed China’s strategy
Renato Cruz De Castro ( - July 12, 2017 - 12:06am

July 12, 2016 is the date which will live in the annals of history as the triumph of international law over gunboat diplomacy. Exactly a year ago, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) was invoked to mediate in the brewing dispute between the Philippines and China over conflicting maritime entitlements in the West Philippine Sea. Defying all expectations, Manila won a near unanimous victory, scoring in 14 out of its 15 claims against Beijing.

On the first anniversary of the ruling, July 12, 2017, the Stratbase ADR Institute will hold a forum titled “The Framework Code of Conduct, One Year After Arbitration.” The by-invitation forum will feature insights from Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Justice Antonio Carpio, Dr. Jay Batongbacal, former national security adviser Roilo Golez, Dr. Ginnie Bacay-Watson and Mr. Koichi Ai, in addition to Ambassador Albert del Rosario.

Highlights of the victory

The PCA affirmed that China’s nine-dashed line has no basis in international law. The court ruled that the Spratly Islands cannot sustain human habitation despite the fact that small groups of fishermen and several fishing and guano mining enterprises utilized some of its land features in the past. Furthermore, members of the tribunal noted that the maintenance personnel deployed in modern installations continue to depend on external resources for subsistence. Given these facts on the ground, the court arrived at the verdict that these features are incapable of generating extended maritime zones.

Moreover, the PCA ruled that China’s island construction projects, installation of facilities in the seven features of Spratly Islands such as Mischief Reef, illegal prevention of Filipinos from conducting fishing activities in the surrounding area, and interference with oil and gas exploration at the Reed Bank constitute a blatant infringement Philippine sovereign rights.

The court also noted that the scale and sophistication of such projects caused irreversible damage to the marine environment. This rendered China guilty of violating the rights and obligations of nations on properly utilizing the ocean. In sum, these decisions invalidated China’s so-called “historic rights” over the West Philippine Sea, thereby clarifying the maritime entitlements and setting a precedent for peaceful resolution of the disputes.

From law of the jungle to law of the sea

The significance of the PCA as an impartial legal institution in maritime dispute resolution in West Philippine Sea cannot be overstated. Before the Philippines forwarded the case in court and won the award, regional states with overlapping claims either acted in accordance with their own interpretations of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) or adopted neutral position on certain maritime issues. Their positions narrowed avenues for joint cooperation to thwart China’s maritime expansion and uphold international law.

The PCA ruling on the invalidity of China’s nine-dashed line gave littoral states such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam a fresh new impetus to realign their existing domestic regimes on maritime entitlements with the provisions of UNCLOS as well a firm international basis for maritime delimitation both in bilateral and multilateral fora.

Consequently, the court decision provided these states with much needed legal framework and justification to coalesce and partner with extra-regional powers such as the United States, Japan, Australia and India to protect their exclusive economic zone against Chinese encroachment. Given that international law is on their side, cooperation among these countries could then be viewed as a joint global effort to defend the rules-based order against a revisionist power.

Chinese maritime strategy revisited

From a strategic vantage point, the most significant implication of the PCA ruling lies in the severed nexus between China’s legitimacy-building and power projection.

To recall, Admiral Liu Huaqing, Commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, codified the so-called “Near Seas Active Defense” doctrine in the mid-1980s. This doctrine states that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ought to deter a potential adversary from invading China from the sea by forming layers of defenses in the first island-chain.

To concretize this doctrine, China developed anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities designed to raise the cost for extra-regional powers, especially the US, of provoking an armed conflict with China. It began building an arsenal of conventional yet inexpensive and highly precise armed ballistic and cruise missiles in the mid-1990s targeting US seaports and airbases in the Western Pacific. To complement the development of ballistic and cruise missile development, China embarked on rapid naval buildup to prevent foreign navies from traversing vast stretches of maritime territory and to render the Western Pacific off-limits to the US and Japanese navies.

In the greater scheme of things, Chinese control of the South China Sea through deployment and operationalization of A2/AD assets will extend the PLA’s power projection capabilities. Specifically, this will empower the PLA to send advanced submarines and surface combatants for longer-ranged strike warfare, and more sophisticated aircraft to delay or deter US response to regional crisis, such as over the Taiwan Straits or in the Senkaku Islands.  In addition, maritime control over the South China Sea will also support the PLAN’s power-project capabilities into the far seas.

Using its historic claim as the legal justification of its maritime expansion, China was able to win domestic support in its expansionist activities, such as the occupation, build-up, and construction of military-grade facilities on a network of seven disputed land features in the South China Sea. In the event of brewing regional tensions, China can militarize these land features to intimidate other littoral states and gain political concessions, as well as complicate US naval operations in the South China Sea short of creating an all-out conflict.

The latest satellite photos by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative provide concrete evidence that China has played the double game: China proceeded with the construction of military and dual-use facilities on Chinese occupied land features in the disputed waters while it was negotiating a framework of a binding Code of Conduct among the Parties of the South China Sea with member-countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The PLA constructed new missile shelters, radar/communication facilities, and other infrastructures on several land features to boost its A2/AD capabilities in the South China Sea while Chinese diplomats negotiated with their ASEAN counterparts to diffuse the tensions.

Undermining China’s sole legal justification

With these in mind, one may then view the maritime dispute between the Philippines and China as well as the arbitral tribunal decision as part and parcel of a classical great power competition between a revisionist power (China) and a resident power (US) in East Asia.

By clarifying the maritime entitlements of the South China Sea, however, China’s expansive maritime claim has been exposed in the international limelight for critical legal and intellectual scrutiny. This, in effect, effectively undermined China’s legitimacy in altering the facts on the ground and revealed China’s underlying four-pronged maritime strategic intent: a) to erode the preponderance of American power in region; b) emasculate the credibility of US security commitments in East Asia; c) sow discord within ASEAN and other regional bodies and d) pressure concerned regional states to accept its “core interests” as givens.


Renato Cruz De Castro, Ph.D. is a trustee and program convenor for foreign policy and regional security at the Stratbase Albert Del Rosario Institute (ADRi) and a professor at the De La Salle University.

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