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Analyst: South China Sea Tribunal Ruling to Present Choice for China


FILE - Filipino student activists set fire mock Chinese ships to protest recent island-building and alleged militarization by China off the disputed Spratlys group of islands in the South China Sea, in Manila, March 3, 2016.
FILE - Filipino student activists set fire mock Chinese ships to protest recent island-building and alleged militarization by China off the disputed Spratlys group of islands in the South China Sea, in Manila, March 3, 2016.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration will rule next Tuesday in the case brought by the Philippines over Beijing's land reclamation activities and claims in the South China Sea. China is boycotting the case in The Hague-based court, saying the court has no jurisdiction to rule on what it calls its sovereign territory.

China says it will not accept the verdict.

This past week, China has been conducting military exercises, which are scheduled to conclude July 11, a day before the court announces its ruling. John Blaxland, senior fellow at the Australian National University's Strategic and Defense Studies Center, says the timing of China's actions is not coincidental.

"The … military exercise is planned to be completed the day before the ruling, and … the Chinese press has come out particularly stridently and frequently in the last few days [and] been very critical of the Permanent Court of Arbitration,” Blaxland said.

Beijing maintains that the best way to settle the dispute is bilateral talks, something that newly elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte hinted may be possible, depending on the outcome of the court's ruling.

Many analysts predict the Permanent Court of Arbitration will rule in favor of the Philippines. China, through previous statements, has signaled it will ignore any ruling against them and continue to assert its sovereignty. Which raises the question, "What will Beijing do?"

Speaking on VOA's Asia Weekly podcast, Harry Kazianis, Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest, highlights three potential courses of action for Beijing following the ruling.

First option

The first option is that "China doesn't do more than what they already are doing," Kazianis said. "As we have seen, [China] is militarizing these all fake islands that they have built up over the last few years in the South China Sea and what … they could do is they could just militarize them even more."

Beijing also could install so-called "carrier killer" missiles or more anti-air assets, he added.

This stay-the-course option, Kazianis says, is probably the least likely alternative, as Chinese leaders — as well as the public — will want to respond more forcefully if the court decision goes against them.

Second option

The second option, and the most likely in Kazianis' opinion, is that China declares an air defense identification zone (ADIZ).

"Basically," he said, "what China has done in the South China Sea — building out these islands and essentially militarizing them — actually sets the stage to do this. Now, the question is, how effective would this be?"

China has previously declared an ADIZ over the East China Sea, and there is a general consensus that the zone isn't that "powerful in terms of a military deterrent. The South China Sea is actually a much bigger area to do this in. So, whether the Chinese will be able to do this is an open question … but just the act of declaring it, and going this far, would be a game changer," Kazianis said.

Third option

A possible third option is what Kazianis calls the "going rogue option," meaning that Chinese President Xi Jinping could exert additional pressure in the region, like that of the East China Sea.

However, what is "very troubling," Kazianis says, "is a pattern of statements that have come out recently [that China is] not afraid of trouble when it comes to the South China Sea."

Global implications

But what's the best path forward if China won't acknowledge the court's decision and jurisdiction?

That’s the "$5 trillion question," Kazianis says.

The U.S. and other nations should work to implement roadblocks against China, he adds. One example: detailing the environmental damage done to the South China Sea as Beijing builds artificial islands, in an effort to shame China into stopping.

Whatever the court's judgment in the case, its implications may not be known immediately.

"This case … will surely affect our lives, especially the next generation,” Harold Ching, a resident from Manila, told VOA.

Philippines President Duterte said he "remains optimistic that the tribunal will rule in our favor," adding that the Philippines would abide by it regardless.

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    Steve Miller

    Steve Miller is a veteran broadcast journalist with over a decade of experience. He is currently the Executive Producer of VOA's audio programs including its long-form podcasts and hourly 5-minute newscasts. Before joining VOA in 2016, Steve covered the Indo-Pacific region while living in South Korea, where he explored the region's rich history and culture while reporting on geopolitics, human rights, and tourism.