Opinion / Editorials

Seeing through the veil of arbitration to sit down for talks

(China Daily) Updated: 2016-07-09 09:04

Seeing through the veil of arbitration to sit down for talks
File photo of South China Sea. [Photo/Xinhua]

It looks like a prefect trap for Beijing:

Succumb to foreign pressure by "respecting" the coming ruling of a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which could hardly be in its favor, and see its historical sovereignty claim in the South China Sea collapse;

Or assume the bad-guy role in the South China Sea narrative Washington, Tokyo and a few other players have scripted, and carry the cross of a lawless rule-breaker.

More importantly, it sounds impeccably reasonable-you cannot argue against calls for "respect for international law".

The arbitration tribunal has been dressed up as an avatar of international law-despite the essential jurisprudential truth that Beijing has announced nonparticipation in and nonacceptance of the arbitration related to sovereignty matters upon signing the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; despite the obvious fact that Manila's case is inseparable from sovereignty claims; and despite Beijing's persistent statements that the arbitration "is illegal, and null and void from the onset", and that the tribunal's ruling on its own jurisdiction is inherently flawed.

Cunning as it is, the altisonant pretext of "rules-based order" cannot deceive people who are really serious about international law, because Beijing has a solid jurisprudential ground to question and ignore the expected tribunal ruling on July 12.

Beijing has made it clear it will "neither accept nor recognize whatever ruling the arbitral tribunal may produce", nor "accept any proposal or action by any country based on the ruling". But that does not mean Beijing and Manila have to remain at loggerheads forever.

Nor should they.

Recent troubles in the South China Sea have taken a toll on broader China-Philippines relations. They are a damaging distraction for both development-minded governments. Whether Beijing and Manila can find away out of an otherwise lose-lose scenario will also have exemplary effects on the entire region, whose aspiration for further prosperity rests on its ability to make peace.

It is, however, consoling to see both Beijing and Manila showing willingness to talk.

A spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said earlier "bilateral and friendly dialogue and consultation is the only right and viable way" out. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, too, has indicated his inclination to talk.

Given the complicated nature of the South China Sea disputes, which involves historical claims, present control, understanding and application of general and specific international laws, as well as third-party interference, patient consultation between disputing parties is the only way to untie the knots.

But the tribunal ruling will put the two sides' sincerity for meaningful consultation to test.

There is no guarantee Manila will resist the temptation to take advantage of a ruling in its favor and demand an exorbitant price for talks. If that is the case, talks will simply not take place.

The Philippine government under Benigno Aquino III messed up China-Philippine relations under the illusion that third-party intervention would make Beijing recoil.

It would be unrealistic for Manila to, like Beijing, treat the coming verdict as "a piece of paper". But if Duterte intends to hold talks, he should get rid of the "Aquinoesque" fantasy and prevent the ruling from ruining that prospect.

Even if an immediate solution is not possible, Beijing and Manila can find away to manage their differences and advance their ties. After all, those disputes are only one aspect of their overall relationship, and they have much more important imperatives to attend to.

But mutual goodwill is indispensable for that to happen.

Most Viewed Today's Top News