Is South China Sea FON issue prelude to another Gulf of Tonkin Resolution?

When the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in Hague announced its findings on the dispute in South China Sea in favor of the Philippines over China, the most jubilant party was the United States.

State Department spokesperson immediately announced that the ruling is legal and binding on all parties henceforth and forever more. Strange because when a PCA ruling did not suit Washington in the past, it was simply ignored.

China’s immediate response was rejection of the ruling as illegal and furthermore meaningless. Meaningless, because in any arbitration, both parties must agree to submit to arbitration, and China did not agree to participate.

Illegal, because both countries are signatories of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and as signatories, the legally binding agreement is that the parties would negotiate on any matters of dispute.

The US has never ratified UNCLOS, so they were uninvited gatecrashers to the dispute.

This does not mean Uncle Sam does not have any skin in the game. The US has been deliberately raising the tension in South China Sea and putting former Philippine president Aquino up to unilaterally submitting the issue to PCA for arbitration.

PCA is not a court of international law and has no permanent, sitting judges. Instead, it has a bank of arbitrators and the parties in the dispute get to agree on the make up of the panel that will hear the dispute.

Since China did not agree to participate, China obviously did not have a say in the selection of the arbitrators.

Spratlys aerial view

The Hague tribunal ruling says that all of the high-tide features in the Spratly Islands
are legally ‘rocks’ that do not generate an exclusive economic zone or continental shelf

Japanese influence?

Instead, Shunji Yanai as head of the tribunal appointed the panel of 5 arbitrators to hear and rule on this dispute. Yanai was formerly Japan’s ambassador to Washington, a good friend of Japan’s Prime Minister Abe and well known for his extreme right wing views—not exactly a disinterested party.

Some have argued that China could see that they would not receive a fair hearing under the circumstances and that was one of the reasons for declining to participate.

The PCA panel of arbitrators not only ruled in total favor of Philippines’ position but also in one fell swoop ruled that Itu Aba is not an island but a mere atoll.

Taipei’s ROC government had taken control of Itu Aba (only it’s known as Taiping Dao) since the handover at the end of WWII from Japanese troops stationed there. Taiping Island has fresh water and can and has sustained human life even before the war. Taiwan has even built a landing strip and a dock there. It’s everything an island should be and not merely a piece of rock above high tide.

The out of the blue ruling from Hague when Taipei didn’t even know that they were a party in the dispute was a rude slap in the face to Tsai Ing-wen’s government and any pretension of sovereignty.

Everyone knows that the US abetted by Japan was behind this move to involve the international arbitration body. The aim was to establish a platform for all the countries around the South China Sea to rally against China’s claims.

Taiwan as collateral damage

Taiwan became collateral damage in the great powers struggle and Taiwan government is still recovering from the shock of being betrayed by heretofore their two “best friends” that presumably could be counted on to safeguard Taiwan’s interest.

Ironically, the PCA ruling has put Taiwan solidly on the same side of the argument as its mainland neighbor. Both sides of the Taiwan straits based their claims in the South China Sea on the same historic evidence and same U-shaped dotted lines. Now they are on the same side in defending their common claims and both pledged to ignore the tribunal ruling.

Washington asserts the PRC activity in land reclamation and putting airstrips in the islands in China’s possession poses a threat to Freedom of Navigation (FON).

Beijing’s response has been that Vietnam and the Philippines had made similar improvements on the islands they occupy, long before China had done so and on many more locations on the South China Sea. Why didn’t the US express similar concerns before?

Beijing further pointed out that there has not been any incidence of obstruction of navigation before or since China began their occupation of the islands. China has even erected strategically located lighthouses on behalf of maritime safety.

Casting China as aggressor

The real cause of this controversy is the American scheme to cast China as the aggressor so that its flotilla of warships can parade around the South China Seas in name of exercising and assuring freedom of navigation.

It is as bald faced as pointing to the wake left by two American carrier groups and accusing China of roiling the waters with its island construction — clearly a case of the bully accusing the other of being the provocateur.

American public may remember the infamous Gulf of Tonkin resolution that gave President Lyndon Johnson the excuse to go to war in Vietnam.

The Congressional resolution was based on the allegation of acts of aggression by North Vietnam gunboats that turned out to be fabricated.

US destroyer Turner Joy -- the ship that spraked the Gulf of Tonkin Incident

US destroyer Turner Joy — the ship that sparkeded the Gulf of Tonkin Incident on Aug. 2, 1964.

So it shall be as American warships sailed in South China Sea (that when desired by the warmongering factions in Washington), a pretext can be created to justify another Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Hillary Clinton was the mastermind of this strategy while she was the Secretary of State—it is doubtful that Donald Trump could be as devious.

According to latest issue of China Daily more than 70 countries have publicly expressed agreement with China that South China Sea disputes should be resolved by negotiation between the parties of the dispute and not via one-sided arbitration. Only four countries support the Philippines and deem the ruling legal.

We have not seen a similar poll of countries in Asia on whether they would feel more secure under the umbrella of the American armada. But as with Taiwan’s recent experience, many must surely be wary of American perfidy.

Not everybody believes might is right and confrontation is the best approach to international relations. The most recent example that comes to mind is Rodrigo Duterte, the newly elected president of the Philippines.

He does not see the favorable tribunal ruling as the end of the story, but sees the win as a means of negotiating with China for long-term economic collaboration. Infrastructure improvements with China’s help such as in ports and harbors and in high-speed rail would be far more beneficial than the occasional sighting of American battleships.

Dr. George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is a member of the Committee of 100, and a director of New America Media.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times. 

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