China may finally be feeling the pressure over its territorial claims in the South China Sea, which now are being analyzed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague.
When the court took jurisdiction over the case filed by the Philippines, which has its own territorial claims in the region, China brushed it off as a “futile” attack on its sovereignty which would “lead to nothing.”
Legal experts now say Manila has a good chance of success based on the court’s rejection of China’s arguments during the hearing on jurisdiction. Such a scenario would mark the first time an international court has intervened in the matter – something Beijing has been trying to avoid for years.
International energy lawyers and officials from other countries in the region are keeping their eyes on the case. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim parts of the South China Sea, which serves as a waterway through which $5 trillion worth of ship-borne trade passes through each year.
“Other countries will use it as a stick to beat Beijing with,” said Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies, in an interview with Reuters. “That’s why China is so freaked by this whole issue.”
Manilla filed the case in hopes of earning a court’s ruling on its right to exploit waters in its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone as allowed under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
This treaty defines territorial and economic zones based on factors such as islands, rocks and reefs.
China, which claims most of the South China Sea, has been expanding its efforts in building artificial islands in the region. Even though it ratified UNCLOS, Beijing dismisses the court’s authority and claims it will deny any ruling- a claim reiterated by China’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday.
Such a response is likely as no entity would enforce a legally-binding ruling in support of the Philippines.
Still, China would face pressure on the world stage, especially at regional meetings.
One expert told Reuters he would expect to see Western nations place pressure on China in bilateral meetings and at international forums if the ruling went against Beijing on specific key points.
“That’s the dirty little secret here … the Chinese have pretended that it’s going to be easy to ignore and reject,” said Bonnie Glaser, a security expert at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, in an interview with Reuters. “I think in reality they will have to pay an international price for it.”