Recent comments by a senior U.S. State Department official on the arbitration case brought to The Hague by the Philippines provoked a harsh response from China. Earlier this month, the Philippines presented a case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague concerning claims in the disputed South China Sea. China though has repeatedly refused to take part in the case and has instead requested that the Philippines withdraw it and allow for bilateral talks. The comments by a U.S. official this week that are supportive of the Philippines have angered Beijing which sees Washington as using its influence to move the case forward to an eventual ruling that will ultimately put China at a disadvantage.
The U.S. Comment
The comments in question were made by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel earlier this week in a speech before the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D. C. He said, “We are not neutral when it comes to adhering to international law. We will come down forcefully when it comes to following the rules.” Furthermore he added that as both Beijing and Manila are signatories to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), legally they have to abide by the tribunal’s decision. It is common knowledge that the U.S. is supportive of anyone but China in the South China Sea dispute but such comments have yet to be heard from senior officials in the State Department.
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Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of Senators including the chairmen and ranking members of both the Senate Armed Services Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a statement supportive of the Philippines. In it they said, “..we applaud Philippine President Benigno Aquino III and his government for his commitment to pursuing this legal course of action. While China is constructing and militarizing new land features in the South China Sea and increasingly turning to coercion to achieve its goals, we are encouraged to see that Manila continues to make every effort to resolve these claims peacefully, consistent with international law, and through international arbitration mechanisms.” They added, “The United States must continue to support our partners and allies, including the Philippines”.
China’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday that the U.S. was trying to influence a South China Sea arbitration case to favor the Philippines. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said, “Attempting to push forward the arbitration unilaterally initiated by the Philippines, the US side just acts like an “arbitrator outside the tribunal”, designating the direction for the arbitral tribunal established at the request of the Philippines. This is inconsistent with the position the US side claims to uphold on issues concerning the South China Sea disputes. Being not a party concerned to the South China Sea issue, the US side should live up to its pledge of not taking sides and refrain from actions that go against regional peace and stability.”
Beijing does not want to see the U.S. take sides on the South China Sea issue despite it being in a military alliance with the Philippines. Meanwhile in the opinion section of the state-run Global Times, Russel’s comments were criticized as being “absurd”. This assertion was backed by the claim that the tribunal has no dominion over the South China Sea issue. The China Daily in its opinion section commented that the neutrality of the U.S. in the South China Sea only amounts to “lip service”.
The Arbitration Case
On Tuesday July 7th, a five-person panel of judges at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague heard the opening of the Philippines case against China concerning claims in the disputed South China Sea for a week. Citing UNCLOS, the Philippines hoped to convince the tribunal that the court has jurisdiction in the dispute and should intervene. The tribunal should be reaching a decision within th3e next three months if the court has jurisdiction in the dispute.
Repeatedly, China has refused to take part in the case, arguing that the court has no authority to intervene in the dispute and is instead seeking to solve the dispute through bilateral talks. When asked by the tribunal to submit counterarguments, China instead submitted a “position paper” declaring that the court has no jurisdiction over the dispute. China argued that it is entitled to reject arbitration in disputes concerning boundaries, historic titles, or military activity since in 2006 it filed a formal declaration that invoked the opt-out clause of Article 298 of UNCLOS.
China has also argued that by filing this case, the Philippines have violated the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). Signed in 2002 between China and ASEAN members, the DOC is a non-binding declaration that discourages claimant nations from engaging in activities that will heighten tensions in the disputed region.
The tribunal has given China until August 17 to comment on the hearing despite its refusal to take part. China is requested to provide its stance on the issues of jurisdiction in the case. Based on past responses by China, it is doubtful that Beijing will offer anything but a rebuttal to the hearing, as it already has stated it will not recognize any arbitration by an international court.
The official position of the U.S. regarding the South China Sea dispute is one of neutrality. Truth is, the Philippines are an important U.S. ally and the two countries share a defense treaty. While the official stance of the U.S. is neutral, the same cannot be said of the opinions of government officials. While it can be said that such a stance by officials is not objective, one must look at overall world opinion on the issue. There is little support for China in this case, partly due to its actions and its refusal to take part in the case. China has repeatedly insisted on bilateral talks which the Philippines will not accept. For its part, China’s refusal to engage in the arbitration leads many to question if China is a responsible member of the global community or does its participation only extend to when the chips are stacked in its favor.