Powerful American diplomacy in combination with military maneuvers is considered the latest part in the compendium of American policies toward manifold disputes in the South China Sea. Observers reduce these developments to several objectives that the U.S. administration is striving to achieve. The United States, as a great power, has numerous interests in the South China Sea, naturally linked to the states that exist within and around it. It is possible to summarize these strategic interests as follows: to guarantee the continuation of its military supremacy through increasing its presence; to counteract the expansion of Chinese power, which represents its primary international competitor; to preserve the navigational freedom of its ships and the ships of its allies; and to observe any special developments concerned with the expansion of the work of Chinese forces outside of their regional waters, such as what happened during the first maneuvers of the Chinese navy with its Russian counterpart in May of 2015, as well as special signs of Chinese efforts to establish military bases abroad.
The Philippines lodged a complaint at The Hague’s court* about the ongoing conflict with China over the South China Sea, a strategic waterway crossed by a third of the world’s oil trade. The latter claims it has “historic rights” over the biggest part of these waters and has implemented expansion works on islands and artificial platforms within the sea, building runways, ports and other installations. The ruling of The Hague commission was released on July 12 in support of the position of the Philippines. The commission’s view is that there was “no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the nine-dash line,” which is found on maps dating from the 1940s and which the Chinese are using as the basis for their claim.
The United States and the Philippines, which are always searching for opportunities to strengthen their military, political and economic presence in East Asia, especially in China’s neighborhood, welcomed the decision. As for Beijing, it responded to the decision of the court with anger and confirmed that it will not recognize or abide by it. The Chinese allege that the ruling contains loopholes and a deliberate subversion of the rules of normal arbitration and accuses the court of setting a bad example for the settlement of the contest. Beijing also thinks that this decision might encourage Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei – all states around the South China Sea – to seek refuge in the court with the aim of obtaining similar rulings.
Both American and Chinese leaders sought to obtain political support from unrelated parties outside of the South China Sea. China, for example, obtained such support from Angola, Madagascar and Papua New Guinea. Beijing was not content with only a military build-up. Rather, it has undertaken to secure a civilian presence in the region by building schools and electrical power plants, opening hospitals, and by providing financial assistance to its citizens to establish a permanent presence on the small contested islands. In addition to this, it invigorated tourism in the region through organizing tourist sea trips from the island of Hainan positioned in the most southerly part of China.
One consequence of this tense situation was the position of neutrality taken by Moscow, especially in the conflict between Beijing and Washington. Observers think that the regional contests in this sea between China and her neighbors pose a serious challenge to Russian policy in East Asia. To date, Russian has been officially committed to rigorous neutrality in the face of this crisis, while the organization ASEAN is in need of a Russian role in the region to support the demands of the states surrounding the South China Sea before China begins confronting them all. However, Moscow is not ready to participate effectively in regional operations, seeing its interests in the preservation of its strategic partnerships in the region. As for the states surrounding the South China Sea, they tend naturally toward the American party because it has the ability to counteract the Chinese republic and curb its control over the natural riches of the South China Sea, such as petrol and fish.
Washington was able to secure support from Australia, its biggest ally in the region. The Australian foreign minister, Julie Bishop, announced that the ruling that said Beijing must not exploit the resources of the South China Sea is “final and binding.” The American news network ABC transmitted Bishop calling on both China and the Philippines to respect the decision and continue building a solution to their disagreement. Australia is not content with only taking the American side in the ongoing dispute. It will also multiply its defense expenditure over the next ten years. The Australian defense budget for the year 2015-2016 was limited to $32 billion, whereas for the 2016-2017 financial year it will be limited to $58 billion. Last Feb. 25, the Australian government announced a “Defense White Paper,” which included a detailed statement of coming investment, most of which was defensive in character or concerned with the Australian government’s geopolitical vision. In the coming ten years, according to the White Paper, the India-Pacific region will be characterized by a great deal of militarism; half of the submarines and fighter planes in the world will be found there. Australia will consequently be concerned with replacing its maritime weaponry, which has not been renewed since the Second World War. The Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said that his country would acquire 12 new submarines at the cost of almost $50 billion, which will begin work in the year 2030. Although China is Australia’s largest trading partner through the export of raw materials, Beijing demonstrated sensitivity to Canberra, which has condemned its behavior in the South China Sea and opposed the installations that China is establishing in the region.
*Editor’s note: The Permanent Court of Arbitration.