Law, Outlaw and South China Sea

By: Shreepal Singh

The occasion was the 16th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue – a security forum – at Singapore on June 3, 2017 and the firework was between the U.S. Secretary of Defence James Mattis and China’s state representative on ‘South China Sea Dispute’.

The US side bluntly stated the facts and the Chinese side termed it the ‘irresponsible’ statement of the rival.

While the two powers stood their grounds, like contesting wrestlers, the other participants watched much like spectators.

There is the territorial dispute of sovereignty over this vast area of Waters. As with individuals, it is normal with nations also to have occasional disputes.

Such disputes have the potential to bring a disaster to the humanity at large and our world by paying a very heavy price in the past in terms of human lives has learnt a lesson.

The putting of United Nations Organisation and all its progeny institutions in place of the erstwhile League of Nations for resolving disputes among nations are born out of this wisdom of our world. International Court of Justice and International Arbitral Tribunals are our – world’s – accepted mechanism to resolve our disputes.

It is an acceptance based on our common ethical sense. And to give this ethical sense the power of some real teeth, the Permanent Members of Security Council of UN – the Five Greats – have taken on themselves the responsibility to ensure others’ compliance.

It has worked so far nicely and looks good.

But what would happen if any one of the ‘Greats’ doesn’t honour its word, doesn’t care for others interests and doesn’t want to follow the ethical behaviour?

This is what has happened with China at the Shangri-La Dialogue.

At this Dialogue Mr. Mattis bluntly pointed out that the acts of China in constructing artificial islands in the South China Sea and putting military facilities thereon was in violation of the international law, undermined regional stability and was in utter disregard of the interests of other nations.

We know that these Chinese acts of construction and militarization of artificial islands were declared in violation of international law by an institution that has been put in place by the world community for such dispute resolution. And what did China say to this accusation?

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China’s construction of facilities in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea was aimed at improving working conditions for people stationed there, maintaining sovereignty and fulfilling China’s international responsibilities. China on its foreign ministry website unabashedly further remarked that these were China’s sovereign activities and had nothing to do with militarization.

What would the world community make out of such response of China?

The stark reality open to one and all is that here there is a dispute, many nations – Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan – claim their territorial rights in South China Sea as against China, the internationally recognised judicial institution has given its verdict against China and China is adamant in persisting its unethical behaviour by advancing spurious arguments, like countries around the South China Sea had tried to lower tensions, but others outside the region have been bent on going against the trend, making repeated erroneous remarks, ignoring the facts and confusing black from white with entirely ulterior motives.

Does China know – or pretends not to know – that there is tension in this region because there is this dispute; a powerful country doesn’t humbly accept the verdict against itself but tries to lower tension (or threatens?); who is outsider in our global village, particularly when the world’s trillion dollars’ trade is being carried through South China Sea?

What are the facts and who is ignoring the facts? The white is that an international judicial forum has given the verdict against China and the black is that China is behaving unethically by not accepting this verdict and the legitimate claims of other nations.

And, the ulterior motives of outsiders? Motive is that China should be pressed upon to behave ethically and to accede to the legitimate claims of other nations.

The motive is that no country howsoever powerful be allowed to behave as an outlaw. Is this motive ulterior?

In fact, this episode has brought into focus the urgent need of reforming the international institution of UN by way of making it the true representative of all current – established or establishing – world powers, including making the veto power in the Security Council a matter of the decision by majority.

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