The clock is quickly ticking closer to a blast coming from the Hague, as a court there is due to issue a ruling this month on a case against China brought by the Philippines over maritime territory in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).
In 2013, under Annex VII to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the Philippines requested a ruling that declared that claims in the South China Sea must accord with UNCLOS. The ruling could invalidate China’s nine-dash line—classify maritime features occupied by China as rocks, low tide elevations, or submerged banks (not islands)—and declare the Philippines’ right to operate inside of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf without Chinese harassment. In response to the filing, China issued a note verbale stating that “it does not accept the arbitration initiated by the Philippines” and therefore will not participate in the proceedings.
The case in the Hague is not only being closely watched by Asian nations, but also by countries around the world. The Obama administration is lobbying its allies to press Beijing to honor the Hague verdict, and China’s largest friend, Russia, has yet to explicitly back Beijing—given the expectation that Vietnam will increase defense procurement from Russia to protect its own territorial claims in the South China Sea (East Sea).
At a regular press conference held on June 14, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang refused to internationalize the issue, stating “The South China Sea issue is supposed to be an issue between China and a few littoral countries of the South China Sea.” Lu added, “We always oppose internationalizing this issue.” Yet just a few sentences later, Lu appeared to welcome international support, claiming “many countries including Sierra Leone and Kenya you just mentioned and tens of countries as we told you before make their voices heard to uphold justice. We commend and appreciate their support.” Lu added, “Compared with seven or eight countries that hold the opposite position, I think the figure itself speaks volumes.”
Despite denials of seeking international support for their cause, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry put the total number of countries pledging their support at more than 40 nations last month, while Chinese state media declared almost 60 this past week. A number of editorials have also been published in local and international press which denounce the proceedings and publicly thank dozens of nations for their support.
What the actual number of supporters turns out to be is subject to dispute, as with many numbers coming out of China. Of the 40 or 60 supporting nations, only eight countries (Afghanistan, the Gambia, Kenya, Niger, Sudan, Togo, Vanuatu and Lesotho) have publicly declared their support for Beijing’s boycott the proceedings in the Hague, according to public statements reviewed separately by The Wall Street Journal and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. More confusingly, five countries have denied ever backing Beijing’s position, including Poland, Slovenia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Whatever the true number of nations which support Beijing’s boycott of the ruling under UNCLOS, we should not forget that UNCLOS was signed in 1982 by 157 nations—including all of the eight aforementioned countries supposedly backing Beijing. More likely is that some nations are bowing to economic pressure brought on by China—and have therefore chosen to save face by not publicly making any statements to contradict Beijing’s declaration of support from their nation.