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China on the defensive after South China Sea ruling

media Chinese ships crowd around the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea in satellite images taken on 12 March 2016. REUTERS/Planet Labs

China said it will take all necessary measures to protect its sovereignty over the South China Sea on Wednesday after an international court in The Hague ruled that its claims were unfounded and contrary to United Nations conventions.

Among the most concrete warnings from Chinese officials reacting to Tuesday’s ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague was from Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin, who said Beijing would consider setting up an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), which would impose airspace restrictions over the sea.

“At the moment, China is not in a position to enforce it in all its scale, but it probably will be in the near future,” says Nick Bisley, professor of international relations at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. “The question is whether they will actually do so.”

Such a scenario is not untested, however: Beijing set up an ADIZ over disputed islands in the East China Sea in 2013, requiring all aircraft entering the area to notify Chinese authorities, but the US and others have refused to recognise this zone.

“The reaction was a pretty strong diplomatic response from the US, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, criticising China for destabilising regional politics by unilaterally changing the status quo in the region,” Bisley says.

“If this would happen in the South China Sea, you would see a similar ratcheting-up of the diplomatic pressure, and probably you would see the kind of response that we saw in Northeast Asia, where the US and others felt the need to show they were not adhering to these new rules.”

A cautious response from the United States

For now, Zhenmin says an ADIZ would only be considered “if [China’s] security is being threatened”, and the US, which has a huge military presence in the Asia-Pacific region, has taken care not to comment too strongly on the arbitration case.

“It’s going to use its military presence in the region to demonstrate its understanding of the verdict,” analyses Ashley Townshend, research fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

“That might entail not just a continuation of its program of freedom of navigation exercises, but a step up in that program. But at the same time, the United States will be cautious to not push too far, because it does realise this will be perceived as provocative.”

China refuses to recognise validity of ruling

The case, brought forward by the Philippines, centred on the applicability of the “nine-dash line” boundary under the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Seas.

But the court has no powers of enforcement, and although China helped draft the Convention and benefits from it in other areas, Beijing has refused to recognise the ruling.

One of its effects is that nations like the Philippines, which cannot rival China or the US in military or even diplomatic might, have now found they can be bolstered in international courts.

“China’s position has been so strong, in my view, because the next step is what they’re worried about: who will take them again to the arbitration tribunal?” says Theresa Fallon, Senior Associate at European Institute for Asian Studies in Brussels.

“Vietnam has a lot of issues with China, so they were close observers of the process, and now that the Philippines have had a positive outcome, it’s very likely they will go to the tribunal as well. Each country that goes makes China’s position more delicate.”

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