On July 12, 2016, an arbitral tribunal appointed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration under the United Nations Convention of the Sea (UNCLOS) issued a ruling that “concluded that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’” in the South China Sea, among other points. The ruling is legally binding. Yet China insisted from the start that the tribunal does not have jurisdiction over the issue. Beijing and Manila had agreed to settle their relevant disputes through negotiations; thus, China argued, Manila’s decision to unilaterally initiate arbitration was against its obligations. China would neither participate in the tribunal nor accept the ruling. Unsurprisingly, China declared that the tribunal’s award was “null and void.” However, the tribunal’s decision and Chinese reaction have implications beyond the South China Sea.
While this arbitration was between the Republic of the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China, it has significant implications for Japan. Japan’s interest in the South China Sea is multi-dimensional. About $5.3 trillion in trade is conducted through South China Sea per annum, globally. Japan being a trading and resource dependent country, freedom of navigation along the sea lanes is extremely crucial for Japanese economy and security. However, another direct implication of the ruling is over the rule of international law, which is an important feature of Japanese foreign policy. Immediately after the ruling by the tribunal, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida released a statement advocating “the importance of rule of law” and reminding that the ruling is “legally binding” and “hence the parties [read China] are required to comply.” Another important factor is the effect on Japan’s image of China as a result of Chinese (non)compliance.
To start with, the lack of mutual trust between China and Japan is vast, but not new. Japanese have increasingly come to view China as “assertive” at best and a “bully” at worst, which has a contemptuous disregard for international rules and norms when those rules or norms do not favor PRC. This, to Japan, shows Chinese willingness to use the rules in their favor, and discredit them otherwise. This ruling and subsequent Chinese non-compliance provides fodder, if it was lacking earlier. China has signed and ratified UNCLOS. However, as the tribunal’s decision went against Chinese interests, China conveniently decided to discredit and reject the ruling. In fairness, China was consistent from the beginning that the tribunal’s decision will be “null and void.” This shows, at best, China cherry picking which part of international rules they have ratified will apply to them — and at worst gross disregard for international rules. This only solidifies the Japanese view that China “uses” international rules only when those rules serve Chinese interests.
This has serious implication over the Senkaku (what China refers to as Diaoyu or Diaoyudao) Islands. According to analysts in Japan, Japan seems ready to battle the case in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) if China were to bring the issue there. Yet the Chinese reaction to the tribunal’s ruling in the South China Sea breeds no confidence that China would accept the ruling if it goes against China even if it were to bring the issue to ICJ, which itself is very unlikely. Thus, this effectively rules out any possible solution to the Senkaku issue vis-à-vis ICJ.
As the ruling date neared, Beijing also raised objections over the selection of three of the five judges to the tribunal by then-president of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), Shunji Yanai, who is of Japanese nationality. China suggested that Yanai’s role amounted to “bias.” Additionally, China argued that the four judges of European origin would not sufficiently understand the history of South China Sea. This can be understood as the reaction of a state which is seeking reasons to discredit a result it was determined to reject. Yet Beijing’s willingness to use any “Japan factor” in order to discredit the tribunal’s ruling shows that the trust deficit runs very deep.
Some analysts have framed China’s non-compliance as a typical reaction of a “great power.” According to realists, great powers are not necessarily bound by international rules when their interest is at stake. If this is true, it is more alarming to the global community, including Japan, as to what kind of “great power” China will turn out to be. This is especially true for Japan, which is in China’s direct neighborhood and has some outstanding issues with Beijing, including the territorial dispute over the Senkakus (a dispute that Japan denies exists) and the “history” issue, among others. Already, China is being labelled as “assertive” or a “bully”; its non-compliance will only serve to reinforce that image.
This has resulted in further strategic distrust between the two governments and a growing number of Japanese who view China unfavorably. According to an opinion poll by Genro in October 2015, nearly nine out of ten Japanese citizens view China unfavorably. Chinese non-compliance to international rules and norms is one of the major factors that contribute to this negative image.
China’s response and actions in the days after the ruling will either mitigate or fuel these concerns. In the aftermath of the tribunal’s ruling, China has conducted military exercises closing off some parts of South China Sea. Additionally, the Southern Theater Command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which looks after the South China Sea front, unveiled a series of new weapons for sea and air combat. Other reports that China is preparing to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea do not bring much confidence that China will look to mitigate the political and diplomatic cost incurred by the tribunal’s ruling. Instead, China seems ready to offset the cost by bolstering its force and presence in the region. On the day of the ruling, China deliberately “leaked” a photograph of China’s most advanced nuclear-powered submarine, an implicit warning. In the words of Beijing-based military commentator Song Zhongping, “no matter what the international arbitration ruling said, China will keep pushing ahead with its maritime ambitions in the South China Sea because it regards it as a ‘fortress’… and the only route for China to establish itself as real maritime power.” This will further give credence to the image of China as a “bully” or “assertive” nation.
Chinese “non-acceptance, non-participation, non-recognition and non-compliance” stance toward the tribunal and rejection of its ruling has only served to reinforce the existing negative image of China in Japan and beyond. It definitely will have only a negative effect on China’s soft power, including its aim to be known as responsible, law-abiding state.
This is not to suggest that Japan’s image of China is a result of China activities in South China Sea alone. Sino-Japanese relations are too multi-faceted to be defined by a single issue. However, an instance like this provides a glimpse of how the two countries view one another.
Also, the South China Sea ruling and Chinese response are not made in a vacuum. Japan feels the anxiety brought about by the rapid rise of China and the opaqueness of its rapidly modernizing military force. With Japan having a stake in the rule-based order in the region and facing a territorial dispute with China, Chinese activities in South China Sea are very keenly watched by Japan. Chinese activities in South China Sea serve as a potential precedent for Chinese activities in East China Sea.
Santosh Sharma Poudel is a PhD student of International Relations at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, with a focus on Sino-Japanese relations over the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute in the East China Sea.