With Tuesday's tribunal ruling largely seen as favoring the Philippines, a U.S. ally, experts say both China and the U.S. likely would intensify diplomatic and military maneuvers to win support for their respective positions.
The United States said the ruling by the Hague-based international tribunal on the case brought by Manila over Beijing’s excessive claims in the South China Sea is “final and legally binding,” urging all claimants to avoid provocative statements or actions.
Daniel Kritenbrink, White House National Security Council senior director for Asian Affairs, said Tuesday that the U.S. has “no need or interest in” stirring tensions in the South China Sea. But he also said Washington will not “turn a blind eye” to the waterway in exchange for cooperation from China on other issues.
Speaking at a forum in Washington, Kritenbrink said Washington is strengthening communication channels with Beijing through confidence-building measures to avoid miscalculation and accidents when patrolling the waters.
The State Department said the ruling could provide the basis for further discussions aimed at narrowing the geographic scope of maritime disputes, and ultimately resolving underlying disputes free from coercion or the use or threat of force.
“We urge all claimants to avoid provocative statements or actions. This decision can and should serve as a new opportunity to renew efforts to address maritime disputes peacefully,” State Department Spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday in a statement.
No historic title
The Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled on Tuesday that China's territorial claims in the South China Sea have no historic title to the vast maritime region.
The decision was made in accordance with rules under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Beijing ratified in 1996.
But China said it would not recognize the legality of the ruling. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dismissed this case as “political farce,” claiming the Convention has no jurisdiction over the disputes.
Professor Peter Dutton from the U.S. Naval War College warned that the real danger of Chinese rejection to the ruling is the damage to Beijing’s own reputation.
“It could take a generation or more to heal the rift between China and much of Southeast Asia,” Dutton said.
Others fear the ruling may “embolden” China to conduct more military exercises in the South China Sea.
“What is really worrisome,” said Philippine analyst Charmaine Deogracias from the East-West Center in Washington, is the tribunal ruling “lacked jurisdiction on military activities.”
Deogracias said Manila would want to see more U.S. navy ships patrolling in the waters, and that Washington gives assurances to Manila “the U.S. is there for us if something happens.”
There are face-saving ways with which China can proceed, according to International Crisis Group Asia Director Tim Johnson. He said Beijing could begin with “incrementally backing away from” the historical rights of the so-called Nine-Dash Line, and “bring its claims closer to principles of the Convention.”
Senior State Department officials also say this decision potentially could open up space for all claimants to attempt meaningful discussions of resource management, and joint development.
Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay said earlier it is possible claimants “might consider” entering into different arrangements, such as joint exploration and utilization of resources in the South China Sea.
The United States is not one of the claimants to the maritime territory, but the U.S. has long advocated ensuring the region's sea routes remain open to international shipping and the U.S. Navy.
U.S. aircraft and ships that have carried out patrols in waters Beijing claims in the region have been verbally rebuked by Chinese forces, causing friction with Washington, which does not recognize Beijing's claims.
U.S. officials have publicly rejected Beijing's claims, and called on China to resolve the dispute with other nations peacefully in international forums such as the U.N.-backed tribunal, but one former senior defense official said Washington needs to back its words with actions.
Amy Searight, former deputy assistant secretary of defense, said recently the U.S. can implement a bilateral U.S.- Philippines security deal “very robustly” by deploying rotational forces.
American military forces can have access to five locations in the Philippines under the so-called Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
Searight added that Washington should “regularly, routinely, consistently conduct freedom of navigation operations to challenge the excessive claims” by China in the South China Sea.