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July 20, 2016

Event Summary: ‘Britain’s Stake in the South China Sea’

by
Henry Jackson Society

By Ruta Valaityte

By kind invitation of Admiral Lord West of Spithead The Henry Jackson Society held a panel discussion entitled ‘Britain’s Stake in the South China Sea’. In 2013 the Philippines filed an arbitration case against China to The Hague tribunal regarding the status of disputed territories in the South China Sea. This year on the 12th of July The Hague tribunal released its decision. The Henry Jackson Society has gathered a panel of experts to discuss the political implications of the tribunal ruling and for the region and for Britain.

Professor Steven Haines from the University of Greenwich Law School provided a brief legal summary of ruling and focused on the things that were not decided in the ruling. According to Prof Haines the tribunal made a comment on the status of maritime features, but it did not pass a definitive judgement on the issues of sovereignty and maritime boundary delimitation and these aspects will have to be solved by diplomatic means. It is significant that the tribunal ruled out China’s historical claims to the maritime territories as unjustified. Politically this gives bigger clout to the Philippines and can be used as a precedent for other potential disputes in the South China Sea.

Ms Emma Sarne, Minister and Consul of the Embassy of the Republic of the Philippines in London, presented the Philippine position in the conflict and explained the reasons for addressing the tribunal in the first place. She mentioned that the South China sea has not been quiet since the 1970s and negotiations over maritime territories became more active since the 1990s, when the US left Philippines. Ms Sarne also emphasised the fact that Philippines are a big archipelago nation and the amount of area that had been allocated to the Chinese islands was disproportionate which led Philippines to chose to resolve the issue peacefully following legal principles.

Mr Bill Hayton, an associate at Chatham House and an author of ‘The South China Sea: the struggle for power in Asia’ published by Yale University Press’, in his presentation focused on the reaction to the tribunal in the Chinese media. China refused to participate in the tribunal procedure, did not provide information and did not share the expenses of the tribunal, which led the Chinese media to decry the tribunal as unfair. Nevertheless, Mr Hayton said that this reaction is likely to be targeted at the local audience and strengthen the image of the Chinese government while internationally China can be convinced to comply with the international norms and accept the arbitration, in spite of the fact that Chinese officials so far have rejected to accept the ruling.

Benjamin Ho, an Associate Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) from Singapore, was the most cautious about the future actions of the Chinese government. He drew attention to the fact that some in China view the tribunal ruling as some sort of Western conspiracy and expressed fears that it might make China even more defensive in the future. In addition, he stated that the tribunal ruling will be a litmus test for the unity of ASEAN organization and stressed the importance of resolving the dispute peacefully.

These short presentations from the panel were followed by a lively discussion in which the importance of Great Britain, the regional role of US, and China’s commitment to international law were the key issues addressed.

For a full transcript of this event click here