Sunday, 17 July 2016

Strategic Implications of the PCA ruling on SCS Dispute

        That the Permanent Court of Arbitration [PCA]  ruling would go largely against the Chinese was well known and therefore it came as no surprise when this was made public. That the image and self- esteem of the Chinese government has considerably diminished as a result of the ruling, is also a given fact. But what has not been sufficiently highlighted and has largely escaped public scrutiny, is that this ruling has also put the governments of US, Japan and Australia on a bind. All three of them have extensive and significant relations with China; and none of them desires to jeopardize or hinder these relations in any significant manner. Both the US and Japan have also successfully defied international court rulings in the past that did not suit them. Australia even went to the extent of raiding  the offices of the Legal Representative of Timor-Leste in Australia to prevent them from filing papers before the international court to resolve their maritime boundary dispute. Trying to pin down China on the issue of upholding international court rulings has only resulted in highlighting their own behavior and shortcomings. It would indeed be jarring for them to be so painted as equal defaulters as China.
* The PCA ruling has posed severe strategic dilemmas to both the US and Japan. Let us consider the case of the US first. As the ruling has given an interpretation of Article 121, under which a four part test is recommended to see whether a land feature is actually a rock or an island; the same test would therefore, ipso facto, be applicable to US controlled land features. If this test is applied, particularly to the Pacific Ocean territories of the US, then the latter stands to lose 400,000 square kilometers of EEZ in Micronesia, as the Kingman reef can no longer be considered to be an island under the four part test mandated by the PCA ruling. Whereas an island is entitled to an EEZ with a 200 nautical mile limit, a rock or a high tide elevation can only claim a 12 nautical mile territorial limit.
*For Japan the PCA ruling is even more problematical. Japan has been claiming an EEZ with a 200 nautical mile limit based on ownership of the Okinotorishima [island]. But as per the PCA ruling and applying the four part test so mandated, Okinotorishima does not qualify for being considered as an island! Japan would thus lose a massive EEZ based on its claim of Okinotorishima as an island, that is situated about 1740 kilometers south of Tokyo. It would be a big set-back for Japanese maritime ambitions in an area immediately south of the main Japanese islands. Similar is the dilemma for Taiwan. It stands to lose Itu Aba, the largest land feature in the Spratlys.
*But the more challenging task that the PCA ruling has thrown up is this: Who is going to enforce these rulings? Would the mandate fall on the US, as the strongest power in the region or would it have to be a collective effort? If the idea is to enforce decisions as a part of a collective effort, then these are bound to fail; for there is no unanimity within ASEAN and even in the recent meeting of ASEM at Ulan Batore participating states from Asia and Europe failed to agree on a collective statement. In fact there is no mention of the PCA ruling. Even the EU statement issued, after many convulsions, simply "acknowledged" the PCA ruling! 
* It thus is quite evident that if any heavy lifting has to be done, only the US has the capability and the capacity to do it. But will they? That is another question that requires a separate detailed examination. For the moment, there is no evidence that the US is inclined to take any unilateral action to enforce the PCA ruling. On the other hand, there are indications that the US would like to take a major diplomatic initiative to ease tensions not only in the region, but more importantly with China. Already the Chief of Naval Operations [CNO] Admiral John Richardson is in Beijing discussing with his Chinese counterpart, Admiral Wu Shengli, on how to diffuse the SCS issue. In the past one year, Richardson and Wu have had three video conferences on the SCS issue.
  *What the US certainly does not want is to be presented with a fait accompli, by any state, taking a unilateral action to rile the Chinese un- necessarily and thus force the hand of the US. In this particular context, the US would watch very carefully the mercurial new Filipino President to ensure that he stays within limits.

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