Three Things You Need to Know About the South China Sea Verdict

Published July 26, 2016 in Episode 53

It looks like China is in hot waters, as far as its patrols and military buildup in the South China Sea are concerned. This is the area China has delineated by a nine-dash line across much of the South China Sea. If you’ve seen it on a map, it looks like the letter “U” or a tongue sticking out from the southern border of mainland China and that’s what the Vietnamese call it: lưỡi bò, cow’s tongue.

China and the Philippines had been locked in a heated standoff over rich fishing grounds at the Scarborough Shoal, a chain of reefs and islands in the South China Sea. The Philippines finally got fed up and, in January of 2013, it filed suit to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, an international tribunal in The Hague, to challenge China’s aggressive territorial claims.

Here to get you caught up on the PCA’s ruling and how it affects Việt Nam is a list of “Three Things You Need to Know About the South China Sea Verdict.”

1. What does the PCA ruling say and does it have any teeth?

In a nutshell, the tribunal ruled that Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea have no grounds.

The legal basis for this ruling is rooted in a set of laws known by its acronym: UNCLOS, short for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas. China, the Philippines (and Việt Nam) are all signatories to this body of law, which is designed to settle disputes.

The first take-away is that China’s claims of historic rights over the U-shaped area have no merit. When China signed on to UNCLOS, it relinquished any historic rights.

The second takeaway is that man-made islands do not merit an exclusive economic zone. In several instances, Beijing has tried to stake their claim by turning rocks and reefs into islands. That is, literally piling sand onto reefs and building ports and military installations on top.

Paul Reichler, the lead attorney who helped the Philippines win the case, discussed the ruling in a podcast hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says the tribunal’s award was precedent-setting:

“In terms of precedent, the first point I would make is that if the nine-dash line and China’s claims pursuant to it are illegal, as against the Philippines, which is what this award says, then logic tells us that the nine-dash line is every bit as illegal, when applied against Việt Nam, Indonesia, Malaysia and other coastal states in the South China Sea. It cannot be illegal against the Philippines and legal against any other state. So the first precedent, first important precedent is, that if the Philippines has won, so have Việt Nam, Indonesia, Malaysia,and other states with coastal… in the South China Sea. China cannot in good faith say, any longer, that the nine-dash line is lawful as applied to Việt Nam and [others].”

UNCLOS - and the tribunal - however do not rule over who has sovereignty.

Skeptics are playing devil’s advocate and point out that despite China’s violations, the international community has no mechanism to make China comply with the ruling, without escalating tensions.

But Reichler believes it won’t be immune to international pressure:

“I think that where this will inevitably lead, and it may take some time, but it will inevitably lead to a negotiated settlement involving all the states in the region, not just the Philippines and China, but all the states. Because China is faced with a challenge now, it can opt either to impose its will against all of its neighbors by force, because let’s face it it’s powerful enough and big enough, if it chooses to do so. But if it does that, it will face a very heavy price.”

2. How did people in Việt Nam react?

Vietnamese everywhere cheered on the ruling.

In Hà Nội, activists under the “No-U” campaign called on Vietnamese citizens to come out to the  Lake of the Returned Sword to show their support for the PCA.

“On Sunday, July 17, a lot of people wore the No-U shirt. We were overjoyed to wear it because for the past five years, the Hà Nôi communist regime has painted people like us as subversive elements. So now that we have this PCA ruling, we’re so happy, because this judgement is recognized by the international community.”

But activist Nguyễn Chí Tuyến, a member of the No-U campaign, tells Loa their joy did not last long.

“The government sent security police from the districts and wards to walk and circle the meeting point. Anyone who wore a No-U shirt, they called for security forces with cars to sweep them up. It didn’t  matter if a person who wore the No-U shirt was doing something  wrong or not. They put them all on the trucks.”

Tuyến says 40 to 50 demonstrators were rounded up and bussed away. They were released later that day.

In Sài Gòn, several demonstrators who were prevented from assembling used a different tactic – they dispersed their messages on motorcycle. Groups of riders zipped through the streets, each biker with a passenger holding up a sign that read “China get out of Việt Nam” and “Việt Nam is an embarrassment compared to the Philippines.”

3. What’s Next? Will Việt Nam follow suit, and bring a case of its own?

Now that Manila has laid the groundwork, many Vietnamese civil society organizations are calling for the government to strengthen its position and bring its own case against China, and to vigorously protect Vietnamese fishermen who have faced harassment at sea. But experts say that is unlikely, given Hà Nọi’s past reluctance to antagonize its communist neighbor.

Jonathan London, a Việt Nam observer at Leiden University, says the government is biding its time.

“I don’t think Hà Nội has actually had the need to say much, but I think essentially it is a bit of a waiting game to see whether if there is anything demonstrable change, not only in the rhetoric from Beijing, but in what actually, Beijing does.  So, you know, I think, obviously Việt Nam isn’t going anywhere either.  It has to play the long game as well, and so I think along with the Philippines, and very likely, in some consultation with other partners, is sort of sitting by and getting a sense of how Beijing might respond.”

Hà Nội is unlikely to match its people’s forceful assertions. Mindful of the economic and political support it derives from Beijing, Hà Nội will probably resolve to just… issuing measured statements.

And that’s the three things you need to know about Việt Nam and the PCA’s recent ruling on the South China Sea.