How can China and the US avoid escalation in the South China Sea?

An international tribunal is expected to rule soon against China in a dispute with the Philippines. How will each side respond?

Erik de Castro/Reuters
A fisherman repairs his boat overlooking fishing boats that fish in the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea.

In the South China Sea, competing claims over territory have taken a bellicose edge, and a ruling to be announced on July 12 by an international tribunal over a dispute between the Philippines and China may make matters worse.

The tribunal, invoked by the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, is expected to rule that the Philippines should control a series of shoals and land outcroppings claimed and largely administered by China. China argues that the tribunal has no jurisdiction in the matter, and says it will ignore the decision.

China’s boycott comes less than two weeks after the United States began military exercises not far from the South China Sea, in a show of strength deliberately timed with the tribunal’s impending decision, reported the New York Times. And it raises fears that tensions between the US and allies like Japan – an outspoken critic of China’s claim despite its own lack of claims to territories there – could escalate into conflict.

“I don’t know that the ruling is going to precipitate something immediately,” says Mark E. Rosen, an international maritime lawyer with expertise on the South China Sea, in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

Officially, the US doesn’t take a position on the competing sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, where Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia also contest their rights to territory, fishing, and oil extraction. But China’s push to build and administer artificial islands in those waters has angered officials in the Pentagon, creating potential for naval skirmishes to erupt.

In an email to the Monitor, Mark Valencia, an adjunct senior scholar at China’s National Institute for South China Sea Studies, echoed the idea that the dispute could turn into conflict. “The Philippines, with US backing, may try to enforce the ruling by upping its activities in the disputed areas,” he wrote, “and China may likely push back.”

“The US needs to work through ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] and really drag the parties to the table and come up with a settlement,” says Mr. Rosen. And Beijing, he adds, need to sit down with Manila. “The Philippines had no tools. This [case] was all they had to drag you to the negotiating table, so for God’s sake, negotiate.”

The case dates back to 2013, when the administration of then-Philippines president Benigno Aquino filed the case with the tribunal following a standoff between Filipino and Chinese vessels in the Scarborough Shoal. Newly inaugurated president Rodrigo Duterte is keener on cultivating ties with China, and says he will pursue further diplomatic options if China ignores the decision.

"God knows I really do not want to declare any fighting with anybody,” Mr. Duterte said on Thursday, according to the Philippines-based news site Rappler. “And if we can have peace by just talking, I would be very happy."

China lays claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea – an area delineated by what’s known as the “nine-dash line” – and as its three major state oil companies have grown increasingly wealthy and technically capable, their executives have pressed the government to lay the groundwork for drilling farther from established Chinese waters, according to a January report from the International Crisis Group.

The report points to the possibility that the dispute over territory could be partially resolved by a Chinese collaboration on extraction with the Philippines, which is badly in need of a domestic source of energy.

Others say the tribunal’s decision could swing momentum toward negotiations. Yanmei Xie, the Crisis Group's senior analyst on China, wrote in an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in early June that a standoff “isn’t inevitable.”

“By clarifying the legal status of the competing claims and increasing international attention,” wrote Ms. Xie, “the court could reduce the asymmetry between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors”, support nations “who want to move away from a Beijing-versus-Washington showdown” and “encourage Beijing to re-examine the cost of its expansive claims.”

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