WATERLOO, ONTARIO – Much has changed and much remains the same since Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague ruled last year on rival claims to the South China Sea. Dampening China’s ambitions in the highly contested area, the court ruled that China had no historical right over the South China Sea, recognizing instead that Beijing violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone.
Hailed by some as a potential turning point after years of tensions, the ruling remains at the center of public and political debate in the Asia-Pacific region and the West alike. While some maintain that the ruling has led to decreased tensions, there is far from enough evidence to say this with absolute certainty. Whether one does believe that the ruling has ushered in a new phase of friendship between Beijing and Manila, the decreased tensions around the South China Sea should not be mistaken for a permanent and stable condition. Instead, the superficial calm that has persisted should be seen as a transitional moment to what can and might come next.
Back to the drawing board
Surely, many thought at the time, the Chinese government would feel compelled to alter the course of events following the decision, given Beijing’s self-professed observance of international law. But all of these voices were quite mistaken. While few expected Beijing to return to the drawing board on this issue and modify its narrative, that is exactly what happened. In the last year China has adopted a stance that is more amenable to the interests of other claimant states, while seemingly backing away from military provocation. Furthermore, since then the Chinese government has made no official mention of the “nine-dash line,” which represents Beijing’s ambiguous claims to the body of water. It has given Filipino fishermen access to their traditional fishing areas around the Scarborough Shoal, which had long been a major bone of contention.
With this apparent shift in behavior and policy, and a year gone by since the court’s decision, it is tempting to conclude that the ruling has had its desired impact. Largely, this would not be a wrong assessment of events as the overall tension and temperature in the South China Sea have undoubtedly decreased. Moreover, the last 12 months have not seen any clashes between China and the littoral states, and Beijing’s rhetoric has been more conciliatory.
The Philippines, which had initiated the arbitration case and had been a fierce critic of Beijing’s maritime claims, has since cozied up to China and mostly kept quiet on the tribunal’s decision. In another telling sign of the improved mood, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations recently agreed on a framework for a future code of conduct for the South China Sea, which would regulate maritime interactions and presumably decrease risks of clashes.
Beware of silence
This calm, however, is misleading, as below its surface, there exists a set of underlying currents that remain unchanged. For starters, apart from a degree of compliance in and around the Scarborough Shoal, there is no indication that China has actually altered its basic position on its territorial and maritime entitlements in the South China Sea. China has continued over the past year to make claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea features while militarizing several natural and artificial islands despite prior assurances that it would not do so.
In the Spratly Islands, the South China Sea’s southernmost archipelago, it has consolidated its foothold on three major artificial islands, making it easier to control the surrounding waters and monitor activities by neighboring states. Beijing has also increased its presence through patrols composed of state-backed fishing boats, coast guard vessels and military ships, which together constitute a potent mix that help it respond to contingencies. Although it has not displayed aggressive behavior or uttered threats, on several occasions Beijing has demanded that foreign vessels leave after what it deemed were incursions into its territorial waters around artificial islands. Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, these man-made islands generate no entitlement.
For the most part, the relative calm that is currently prevailing in the South China Sea is a result of trends that are independent of the tribunal’s verdict.
The most important of these trends is the reversal undertaken by Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. In contrast with his predecessor, Duterte has initiated a notable rapprochement with China, paving the way for closer business and trade ties, and has talked about negotiating with Beijing to resolve their differences. This appears to vindicate China’s approach to the territorial and maritime rows, as Beijing had long called for settling the South China Sea disputes through bilateral talks.
All good things come to end
The current lull may not last. The Trump administration recently conducted its first freedom of navigation operation (known as a FONOP) in the South China Sea to target what it deems China’s “excessive” claims. Washington appears poised to continue such operations, which will exacerbate the current downturn in Sino-American relations. Japan is also increasing its presence in the South China Sea, with the Izumo, the Self-Defense Forces’ largest warship, recently completing a three-month deployment that included visits to several Southeast Asian partners.
China is now, by and large, calling the shots in the South China Sea. Despite a change in tone and the superficial calm, China’s basic position remains unchanged, and the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration is in danger of falling into irrelevance.
Benoit Hardy-Chartrand is a senior research associate for the Global Security & Politics Program at the Center for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario, where he specializes in the Asia-Pacific region.