Maritime Claims & Territorial Disputes

Asia Society Northern California, along with the RAND Corporation and UC Berkeley’s Institute of East Asian Studies, hosted two panels of experts to discuss tensions in the South China Sea and the implications of the recent ruling issued by an international tribunal in The Hague. The event began with a brief but incisive overview of the current situation given by Orville Schell, the Arthur Ross Director of Asia Society’s Center on US-China relations.

The first panel, moderated by David Arnold, President of the Asia Foundation, focused on the factors driving the actions of the Philippines, Taiwan and China in the region. Research Fellow Yann-Huei Song from the Institute of European and American Studies at Taipei’s Academia Sinica, explained that, “From Taiwan’s perspective, security issues are the most important factor affecting Taiwan’s policy making process and its maritime claims.”

Maria Ortuoste, a professor of Political Science at CSU East Bay and former Philippine policymaker, said that public opinion, as well as economic interests, are important to the Philippines. “Nationalism will not want to give up anything in the South China Sea, especially after the arbitration panel’s decision.” Thomas B. Gold, an internationally acknowledged expert on China and professor at UC Berkeley, spoke about how a “dream of recovering historical greatness” shapes Chinese policy in the South China Sea. “National security is so tied up with domestic legitimacy that you can’t really separate the two,” he explained.

The second panel, moderated by N. Bruce Pickering, Asia Society’s Vice President of Global Programs and Asia Society Northern California's Executive Director, focused on the ramifications of the recent international tribunal ruling against China’s claims within the “9-dash line.” Donald K. Emmerson, Director of the Southeast Asia Program at Stanford University’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, said that because of China’s rejection of the decision and the challenges of enforcement, “Future historians will look back on 2016 in the South China Sea and summarize what happened in 3 words: Might makes right.” Schell agreed, saying that “the ruling is great except for one simple reason – China rejects it, and it is the only country that matters.”

Rafiq Dossani, Director of the RAND Corporation’s Center for Asia-Pacific Policy, was not much more optimistic. “For China, the South China Sea is a great experiment, and failure would be very costly.” He added: “It is trying many, many things, some of which will fail, and some of which are more aggressive than others. It is hoping that its economic might will ultimately help wash away any sins it might commit in the interim.”

Henry Bensurto Jr., Consul General of the Philippines in San Francisco, took a more hopeful tone. “The intention of the Philippines is not to make an enemy of China, but we live in a community and law is the tie that binds that community. If you take it out you descend into anarchy.” “We all know the tribunal is not the whole solution. We call it one brick in a whole house. But you have to start somewhere.”