Will the South China Sea conflict ever be resolved?

China's navy conducting drills in the South China Sea. 2013. Asitimes / Wikimedia Commons

By Sarah Caroline Bell

The verdict in the case of The Philippines v China is expected to be made public later this month. But what will this verdict mean in reality? What impact will it have in terms of the stability of the ongoing relations between the nations of the South China Sea?

A ruling either way has the absolute potential to create hostile relations; a ruling in favor of the Philippines would result in the Philippines believing, and therefore acting, as though they are legally entitled to the Spratly Islands, as they so claim. However, the fact that China has not participated in the proceedings at all means they would likely not consider it the territory of the Philippines.

China would continue to treat the South China Sea as their own land and waters. Because of the way both parties are treating this case, the verdict has the potential to send both nations on a collision course that could result in something catastrophic.

On the face of it, the case is looking positive for the Philippines. The matter of jurisdiction has already been considered in their favor by The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration. This was reached in 2015; the decision of May 2016 will not only cement their own belief in their claim even further, but also give them cause to justify any future actions they may decide to take.

While any ruling in favor of the Philippines will aggravate China, it may have a wider effect. If the Philippines gets the verdict it desires, will that cause other nations to retaliate against the Philippines?

The islands in consideration, the Spratly islands, have been tied to most of the nations in the South China Sea at different times throughout history: Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan, acting in its formal capacity as the Republic of China, all hold their own legitimate claims based on either their historical use of the land or their proximity to the land itself.

The fact that the US has made its presence known in the Philippines as of late only compounds the issue even further. In the mind of China, what does that mean when it appears as though the US is coming to the defense of the Philippines?

Conversely, China has had support on their stance from Russia, in the form of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. With both the Philippines and China having their opinions backed up by the US and Russia respectively, it does not seem they are out with the intention of meeting each other halfway. It appears they are in fact both going in the opposite direction.

The issue in which the decision covers is of the Spratly Islands and its surrounding waters, but the real issue at hand is what lies below the surface of the ocean itself. It is claimed that the South China Sea houses up to 11 billion barrels of oil and up to 190 trillion cubic feet of gas. Historically, this has been a prime motivator for conflict; natural resources.

What can be done to prevent war in the South China Sea? Possession is nine tenths of the law, but it means little if the losing party ignores a ruling that states that the possession in question is not in fact theirs. When one party does not respect the authority of a ruling, then a ruling only makes the matter worse. The Philippines have said they are open to bilateral talks with China only if the upcoming decision is reached in their favor. This is not a conflict-avoiding strategy.

The only way that conflict can be avoided is to avoid the very thing that would be – a ruling. This is not possible. The only way that this issue can be resolved is for all parties with a stake in this claim to discuss this claim. It is a big call, and based on the way China has reacted so far, it is not an action they would be willing to consider. In their opinion it is simply theirs, case closed.

Perhaps all parties need to not only enter arbitration, but also need to participate and be present. Perhaps the Philippines, The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration, and The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) themselves need to get into dialogue with China.

China needs to step up and work with all nations in the South China Sea, for any kind of resolution to be found. But as with anything in an ideal world, it is sadly an unrealistic suggestion that will just never happen.

Regardless of the ruling, the question is whether this issue will ever be resolved? We already know how these territorial claims play out. We only need to look as far as Dokdo and the unresolved territorial claims made on it by both Japan and South Korea.

No one will ever win, because they both refuse to lose. It seems in politics, as in the playground, no one will ever give up what they believe to be rightfully theirs.