08 Aug 2019

What is the South China Sea Truth Movement? This was one of the topics recently discussed on the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy’s Facebook group, BigWig, and describes the ongoing information campaign in the Philippines to “explain the historical truth about the South China Sea”, according to Philippines’ Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio. Global-is-Asian examines this subject and explores what the Truth Movement entails.

Tensions that still persist

The South China Sea (SCS) is crucial for connecting Asia with Europe and Africa, with up to US$3.37 trillion in international trade passing through the area. There is also an estimated 11 to 22 billion barrels of oil and 190 to 290 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the area’s seabed.

In a 2016 arbitration case brought by Manila against Beijing, the Hague ruled in favour of the Philippines, and declared that China has no “historical rights” over the sea. However, in the three years that have passed, China appears to have rejected the ruling and continues to fortify rocks into islands, which serve as bases for their military and fishing operations.

The Duterte administration has also been criticised for pandering to China and not enforcing the tribunal’s ruling. The administration has allowed Chinese fishermen in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and some claim that this has “permanently damaged” the arbitral ruling and instead serves to recognise China’s claim.

Recently, the Philippines Supreme Court issued an order directing the government to "protect, preserve, rehabilitate and to restore" the marine environment in the Scarborough Shoal, Second Thomas Shoal and Mischief Reef. This was initiated due to a petition filed by environmental activists and fishermen who allege that the government has failed to act against China’s activities.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has attempted to establish a Code of Conduct to create a framework and manage the various countries’ claims over the SCS. Although a draft has been created, it is unlikely that countries will come to a formal agreement anytime soon, as it is foreseeable that negotiations will be tough.

The importance of rhetoric

With China continuing to expand its presence in the SCS, and no effective framework being established to determine what belongs to whom, the next option to consider may be changing the entire narrative around the current situation.

Some believe that a cognitive shift in how leaders in Southeast Asia deal with China can come about through words, as their cognitive effect could “set the tone for negotiations, enhance morale and communicate resolve.” This could be as simple as identifying and verbally calling out China on its transgressions in the region.

How else can the power of words be utilised to change the situation? Justice Carpio recently called for the Philippines to make more of an effort at “promoting the truth” about who has legal claim over the South China Sea.

So, what exactly does this truth movement entail and what is the truth in the first place?

The South China Sea Truth Movement

Justice Carpio argues that the Philippines must harness the power of communication to protect its sovereign right in the South China Sea. He reiterated that based on the Hague’s ruling, “the Philippines owns exclusively all the resources within 200 nautical miles from its coastline facing the West Philippine Sea. All the fish, oil, gas, and mineral resources in this huge maritime space, larger than the total land area of the Philippines, belong exclusively to the Filipino people.”

Explaining that the “Great Firewall of China” restricts Chinese citizens from accessing information outside of what the government allows, he called on Filipinos to educate Chinese people that they encounter on the true history of the South China Sea.

This proposed “information campaign” is dubbed the South China Sea Truth Movement, “a people’s movement using freedom of expression to explain the historical truth.” He also suggests inviting the peoples of Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei to join in the movement.

But how feasible is this Truth Movement and how would it be executed? Justice Carpio suggests talking to Chinese tourists outside of China, for example. The intention is that by educating them, they will then “spread the truth about the South China Sea to their compatriots at home.”

The question, then, is what is the correct narrative that should be taught in the first place? This Truth Movement may pose problems of its own, if China views it as undermining its legitimacy. There is the added caveat that admitting to any of the claims in the Truth Movement could then create distrust amongst Chinese citizens in their government.

However, wider civil society may not necessarily have an impact on resolving the dispute. According to Drew Thompson, Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, the delimitation of national boundaries is an inherently governmental function that leaves no room for true civil society. Governments may be adept at shaping public opinion to justify a political position, but disputes must ultimately be settled on a state-to-state basis.

How legitimate are China’s claims?

To present an objective narrative, the legitimacy of China’s claims over the SCS must be thoroughly considered.

China’s claim is based on a demarcation called the “nine-dash line.” The government first adopted the dash drawings in 1947, after an inspection of the SCS. The drawing was meant to give a general but imprecise impression of Chinese sovereignty in the region, while at the same time allowing for vessels from other countries to navigate freely.

Beijing is a signatory of the United Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which is an international treaty that defines the rights and responsibilities of nations with regard to their use of the world’s oceans, establishing guidelines for business, the environment, and the management of marine natural resources.

One of the main reasons China’s claim was dismissed was because it could not provide a clear indication of the territory, nor what its rights are within it. This ambiguity allows for China to continue acting unchecked, as there are no legally binding terms of what it is allowed to do.

China could claim that under UNCLOS, some of the features in the Spratlys are islands, as they are naturally formed areas of land above water. This could mean that these islands are entitled to an EEZ as they are capable of sustaining human habitation. According to international law, China could also claim that it therefore has sovereign rights and jurisdiction under UNCLOS to explore the hydrocarbon resources in these zones.

However, it once again it comes down to who has ownership over the areas in dispute, and the preservation of the rights of each of the countries involved.

Is it too late anyway?

China’s construction of islands in the SCS obviously cannot be reversed. This does not necessarily mean that its control of the SCS is a fait accompli. Thompson explains that although China’s land reclamation and infrastructure provides it the ability to maintain a persistent civil and military presence in the region, that capability does not equate to control. Other claimants are still able to maintain their own presence in the sea.

Indeed, the Western response has been to assert multipolarity by conducting freedom of navigation operations, alongside the navies of Britain, France, Vietnam and Japan, amongst others.

The United States has been particularly vocal about China’s SCS plans. US Republican Senator Marco Rubio recently re-introduced the South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act that would "impose sanctions against Chinese individuals and entities that participate in Beijing's illegitimate activities to aggressively assert its expansive maritime and territorial claims in these disputed regions."

Thompson adds that the current risk of conflict is low, as no one claimant country has the capability or will to stand up to China militarily in the SCS. In the long run, however, countries in the region may need to stand up and protect their interests, in order to enforce rulings and create a binding framework that would ease the geopolitical tensions in the region.

Perhaps the best way forward would be to achieve a consensus instead of pursuing each party’s own goals. There are advantages to sharing the resources instead of monopolising them. However, parties currently do not want to compromise. Sharing resources would entail conceding claims to the territories in order to achieve a consensus, which may in itself take years to achieve.

What is your opinion? Continue the conversation on the Facebook group BIGWIG.

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