Thitinan Pongsudhirak: Tribunal Ruling Against China Will Test ASEAN Unity

No matter how Tuesday’s verdict by an international tribunal on China’s South China Sea claim is viewed, and whatever its immediate consequences, the watershed ruling will bring about a “new normal” in Southeast Asia that portends more regional tensions and potential conflict in the longer term. This “new normal” means that the status quo before Manila took its case against China to the dispute-settling Arbitral Tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in January 2013 will not be restored. China will effectively control the areas it has claimed and in which it has constructed features and facilities, even though the tribunal’s damning ruling suggests it has no legal right to do so. It behooves China now as an aspiring global leader to be satisfied with its neighborhood fait accompli and start to compromise with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations by working toward the group’s proposed rules-based Code of Conduct for Parties in the South China Sea (CoC). For ASEAN, particularly for the Philippines, the favorable ruling may prove a Pyrrhic victory unless the resilient but divided regional organization can close ranks and put up a united and persuasive stand to rein in China’s maritime claims.

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