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The South China Sea Dispute: China's Polygonal Defence of Core Interests

James Tunningley
Commentary, 12 July 2016
China, Pacific, Asia, International Security Studies, Global Security Issues
The ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the dispute with the Philippines over sovereignty claims in the South China Sea (SCS) went against China. Immediately China labelled the tribunal as ‘law abusing’, calling the decision ‘ill founded’. Although expected, the reaction is yet another indication that sovereignty is increasingly becoming part of Chinese ‘core interest’ on which Beijing won’t budge.

The clash between China and the Philippines over the SCS has persisted for decades. After innumerable discussions behind closed doors, the Philippines referred the matter to the tribunal in 2013, asking for an advisory opinion. The ruling on Tuesday morning in favour of Manila has been heralded as a victory for the ‘small guy’, with many believing this legal ruling will affect security dynamics in the region. The South China Sea Arbitration communique stated: ‘The Tribunal concluded that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the “nine-dash line”’ and that China has no ‘historical title’ over rights in the SCS.

Following the announcement, which was championed around the world as a victory against an increasingly ‘assertive’ China operating outside the perimeters of international law, a reassertion from the Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China that ‘China has historic rights in the South China Sea’ and that the ‘positions are consistent with relevant international law and practice’ demonstrates that China intends to ignore the findings.

China's Response 

Although many expected China to ignore the decision – if only because Beijing denied the Tribunal’s jurisdiction and refused to take part in the hearings – eyebrows were raised by the sheer pre-emptive effort China put round the world in order to minimise the ruling’s impact.

A number of senior Chinese ambassadors took to foreign media outlets in an attempt to discredit the ruling. On 10 June, for example, Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the UK, wrote an op-ed in The Telegraph entitled ‘Stop Playing with Fire in the South China Sea’, which stated that ‘the tribunal has no jurisdiction over the case at all. The submissions made by the Philippines appear to be related only to the classification of maritime features and fishery disputes, but are in essence inseparable from territorial sovereignty and maritime delimitation’. He also alleged that ‘territorial sovereignty is not within the scope of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea’. On top of this, China has also gone out of its way to rally more than 48 nations and more than 130 political parties and associations, all of whom have offered at least partial support to Beijing's position.

This is uncharacteristic behaviour for the Chinese. As Professor Kerry Brown at King’s College London has pointed out, ‘in the past, there were such media pushes, but usually only to accompany visits of Chinese leaders to specific countries. It is rare to see this sort of global approach’.

The Importance of Core Interests 

If China intended to ignore the Tribunal’s decision, why was it so invested in efforts to diminish its importance? The answer to this depends, largely, on the interpretation of China’s motives. The usual explanation for China’s behaviour is that, as the country grows in importance and economic strength, it is also becoming an increasingly assertive power, especially in maritime affairs. However, the assertiveness narrative may in itself be flawed, for, as seen from Beijing, its actions are those of protecting ‘core interests’, something on which China has continually stated it will not budge. China’s sovereignty claims in the SCS are thus justified by an expanding use of the term ‘core interest’.

According to the 2011 White Paper ‘China’s Peaceful Development’, which included the most comprehensive and indeed relevant definition, China’s core interests include: ‘state sovereignty; national security; territorial integrity; national reunification; protecting China’s political system as established by the constitution, the maintenance of overall social stability; and basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development.’ More recently, the scope of the definition has been widened once again. Whilst commenting on the new National Security Law, a senior official of the National People’s Congress defined ‘core interest’ as encompassing ‘the political regime; the sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity of the nation; and people’s livelihoods, sustainable economic development of society, and other major interests’.

This includes both the East and the South China Seas which, as a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson reiterated, are ‘core interests on a par with Taiwan and Tibet’. In light of the ruling, China’s disputes in the SCS over claims to maritime territory involve ‘state sovereignty’, ‘national security’ and ‘territorial integrity’, all of which are valued by Beijing as core interests. This has been of central importance to the Chinese government as it has repeatedly emphasised that this very sovereignty forms the cornerstone of China’s relationship with the rest of the world.

South China Sea as a Core Interest

The evolution of the term ‘core interest’ to include the SCS has been fuelled by a number of factors, including history, economic development and nationalism. The US presence in Asia also triggers an ideological justification for China’s territory claims: China wants the US out of the Asia Pacific, for it sees the region as operating within Beijing’s own version of the Monroe doctrine.

Either way, Beijing will not only ignore the PCA’s ruling, but continue to reiterate its maritime aims in the SCS – perhaps more assertively than before. For ultimately it will not be legal interpretations, but deliberate decisions to build up capabilities denying outsider access to the region, that will decide matters. China is going to have to look to alternatives to charm offensives as it now breaks the law in asserting legal rights to islands it claims. But the fact remains that, temporary embarrassment at the Tribunal’s ruling aside, Beijing believes that its strategy is still working, and that this strategy is preferable to all alternatives.

James Tunningley is from the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies. 

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