News analysis

China's response to Hague ruling restrained so far

Two days after a UN-backed arbitration tribunal dented China's territorial claims in the South China Sea, none of the worst-case reactions has come to pass.

These included Beijing declaring an air defence zone over the South China Sea, seizing control of a shoal in the disputed Paracel islands, and withdrawing from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In what is clearly an exercise of strategic restraint, China's response has comprised largely pledges by its leaders and officials to defend its sovereignty, and denouncements of the tribunal and its ruling. The Foreign Ministry has hit out at countries such as the United States urging China to respect the ruling.

Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said China has formally protested against the "wrong remarks" made by Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who said Canberra will continue to exercise its right to freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.

 
 
 
 

"Honestly speaking, I'm a bit shocked at Bishop's comments," he said at a routine briefing yesterday.

So far, the only actions China is known to have taken include the release of a White Paper on Wednesday to press its territorial claims and stress its preferred way of handling territorial disputes through bilateral talks.

It has also carried out civilian test flights at two new airports, on Mischief Reef and Subi Reef, in the disputed Spratly islands.

While mainland experts continue to raise some of the abovementioned scenarios as options at the government's disposal, there is also a sizeable camp urging Beijing to stay calm and not over-react.

The Chinese government appears to be heeding this call.

Instead of holding military drills or patrols, it conducted civilian flights - a subtle way of defying the ruling and staking its claims without causing undue alarm.

There are several possible reasons for this public restraint.

First, the government has to abide by its pledge to ignore the ruling like a "useless piece of paper". Over- reaction could be seen as a U-turn and trigger a domestic backlash.

Second, restraint reflects China's confidence - that the heat arising from ignoring the ruling will subside over time. Nearly 70 countries support its stance, according to the China Daily, and the number further bolsters this confidence.

Third, China appears optimistic that the Philippines - as its President Rodrigo Duterte has pledged - will not flaunt the ruling and may even agree to set it aside and resume bilateral talks.

Fourth, China may think it has sufficiently staged a show of force through its largest live-firing drill yet in the South China Sea - an exercise that ended on Monday, a day before the tribunal issued its ruling.

Lastly, while safeguarding its national sovereignty is paramount, China knows that it is in its own interests to maintain stability in its backyard amid a sluggish economy and before it can match the United States in military prowess.

For now, one can expect a sustained Chinese public relations campaign on why no country should respect the ruling or use it as a basis for positions or actions, as stated by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Indeed, Professor Fu Kuncheng, director of Xiamen University's South China Sea Institute, said China should just keep talking. "All it needs to do is to keep laying out its arguments and the ruling will be shown up eventually," he told The Straits Times.

To be sure, it is early days yet.

Beijing may just be waiting for others to make a move. Any act deemed to threaten its national security or territorial integrity could spark a fierce reaction from China. The waters have remained calm in the South China Sea, but for how much longer?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2016, with the headline 'Beijing's response restrained so far'. Print Edition | Subscribe