East Sea tensions heat up as Philippines approaches UN tribunal

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A man paddles a bamboo boat to reach a bigger boat off Ly Son islands in Vietnam's central Quang Ngai Province April 10, 2012. China and four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei - have long-festering sovereignty disputes in the East Sea. The Philippines has asked a UN tribunal to intervene in the dispute, and China stands to lose the propaganda war or get embroiled in a messy post-verdict tussle.

China stands to either lose the propaganda war or get embroiled in an awkward tussle neither party is likely to win as the Philippines prepares to ask that a UN tribunal intervene in the long-festering territorial dispute in the East Sea, analysts say.

Vietnam, another claimant to part of the potentially resource-rich East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea), should wait for the outcome of the Philippines' move before deciding if it would follow suit, they say.

"If I were Vietnam I would wait to see how this plays out China's reaction may be fierce, or the tribunal may not accept the case, or the effort may be futile," said Mark Valencia, a Hawaii-based expert on the East Sea dispute.

Manila will ask a tribunal of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which both China and the Philippines are signatories, to order a halt to China's activities that the Philippines says violates its sovereignty, Reuters reported Wednesday (January 23).

During the last two years, Vietnam and the Philippines have accused China of wanton aggression in staking out its claims in the area, which is thought to hold vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas. The area also straddles key shipping lanes through which more than half the globe's oil tanker traffic passes.

China and four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei are parties to sovereignty disputes over the East Sea.

China brazenly claims the largest area, covering most of the sea's 1.7 million square kilometers.

Though this has been emphatically rejected by the other claimants and independent experts, analysts warn that Beijing is unlikely to back down from its expansive claims in the region, stretching from the eastern Himalayas to the East Sea.

Manila says the Chinese stance led to a standoff last year over rich fishing grounds around the Scarborough Shoal, a formation much closer to the Philippine coast than to China's shores, AFP reported Tuesday.

The Philippines demands in its submission that China "desist from unlawful activities that violate the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of the Philippines under the 1982 UNCLOS."

China hit back Wednesday, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei saying the Philippines move would only worsen the status quo. He also accused Manila of "occupying some of China's islands in the South China Sea," according to Reuters.

Under international law, China is entitled to opt out of compulsory arbitration on sovereignty or boundary delimitations. It could simply say that it is not going to participate in arbitration; if it agreed to arbitration, then the decision of the tribunal would be binding.

"If the UNCLOS Arbitral Tribunal took up the case which it can do with or without China's participation and ruled favorably for the Philippines, this would undermine the legal basis of China's claim to "˜indisputable sovereignty' over the entire South China Sea," Carl Thayer, a maritime expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said.

"A legal decision of this nature would carry enormous normative and moral weight with the international community. It would provide legal grounds for any action the Philippines felt necessary to defend its sovereignty.

"China has thirty days to respond and name its representative to the tribunal. If it does not respond, the chairman of the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) has the authority to appoint four of the five members of the tribunal."

While the UN tribunal would have no mandate to enforce its decisions, analysts said it could be at least a propaganda victory for the Philippines, especially if China plays this badly, leaving Beijing in between a rock and a hard place.

"If [China] decides to opt out of arbitration, it loses the PR war, but if it decides to respond, then it would get into a very messy process in which no one might be a winner," Sam Bateman, a maritime expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said.

The move by the Philippines would be "a bold political gesture anticipating a negative response from China that would lead to a further round of criticisms of China's lack of cooperation and assertiveness," he said.

Tough tone

The Philippines is a staunch ally of the US and so is Japan, which has also been caught up in a territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, meeting last week with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan's new right-leaning government, issued a veiled warning over the islands known as the Senkakus in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese, AFP reported.

The US opposes "any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration" of the largely uninhabited islands, Clinton was quoted by the newswire as saying in response to growing accounts of Chinese ships and planes in the area.

China said it was "strongly dissatisfied with and resolutely opposes" Clinton's remarks and the state-run Xinhua news agency said that Obama "failed to significantly enhance strategic trust" between the countries in his first term, AFP said.

Since President Barrack Obama announced a "pivot" toward the economically resilient Asia-Pacific region in late 2011, the US has maintained it will play a neutral role in both the East China Sea and South China Sea disputes.

But critics say the US "rebalance" toward Asia in foreign and defense policy has seen Obama starting his second term with his administration adopting a tough tone on China over the East China Sea dispute. The "pivot" has already aggravated the South China Sea dispute and increased tensions between the two superpowers, analysts say.

The analysts expected no major shift in foreign policies during Obama's second term that appears to be as much military strategy as political. China will remain a major US concern and likewise for China, they said.

"In 2013, the two new teams, in Washington and Beijing, will

test each other's nerves and muscles," said Alexander Vuving, a security analyst at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.

"One thing is for sure, in my view, that the US will go ahead

with its "˜rebalance' to Asia. Also, I think [Chinese party chief] Xi Jinping will not be a dove, either," Vuving said.

"So tensions in the South China Sea will continue to increase. But much will depend on how things go in terms of economics in both China and the US."

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