China should be careful how it looks to the international community, according to Professor Jerome Cohen of New York University.
The drama about the disputed Scarborough Shoal or Huangyan Islands had the Philippines seeking international arbitration from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS. The Philippines have said they acknowledge that they are no match for China’s militarial power and wish to settle this matter on international standard proceedings. All well and good, but only if China shows up.
The whole issue began when upon inspecting a Chinese vessel in Scarborough last April, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said they found “large amounts of illegally collected corals, giant clams and live sharks”.
China justifies its claim to the islands based on the “nine-dash line“, which encompasses as much as 90 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometer South China Sea. The Philippines’ claim is that the Shoal is within the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, as prescribed by UNCLOS.
Cohen says he was “disappointed” that Beijing didn’t even attempt to present its arguments to the UNCLOS panel, instead “of following procedures, the Chinese say [the nine dash line] is so clearly right that our position cannot be challenged, so we don’t have to bother with what we’ve committed ourselves to. How is it for any nation to say we’re so correct that we don’t have to go to the impartial tribunal we previously agreed on to hear our views validated?”
China has made it clear that they simply don’t care what anyone else thinks. Last year, Philippine newspaper The Inquirer reported that China vessels had roped off the island to prevent other shipping vessels from coming in. Hong Lei, spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said in a press conference June last year that “the Chinese side will continue to maintain administration and vigilance over Huangyan Island waters.”
It would be wiser for both countries to engage in responsible rhetoric rather than play media battleship. While there may be no way to figure out who owns what at this point, discussing claims in a peaceful tribunal might have been a good step towards settling the standoff. Cohen said that great powers “need to be reminded from time to time they are subject to international limits they sometimes don’t like.” Cohen is also concerned about China’s reputation, saying “when you’re seen to be a violator of international law, you don’t win many votes from the world community.”
It’s already happening. In a recent BBC poll, China’s worldwide positive rating saw an eight percent drop.
By Angela Sy // Image credit: Johnny Berg