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Rule of law is key to resolving competing claims in South China Sea

Jun 06. 2016
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By Glyn T Davies

During our lifetimes Southeast Asia has seen astonishing growth and development. Skyscrapers and deepening Asean collaboration are now the defining images of a region once beset by conflict. While much of the world struggles economically, Southeast Asia r
This remarkable, sustained progress could not have happened without the regional stability afforded by a rules-based international order. Rules that apply equally to all countries, big and small, do not simply appeal to our sense of fairness. They facilitate trade and investment by ensuring a level playing field and reassuring investors.  They help defuse potential conflicts.
Today, those principles and the stability they have underwritten face a defining challenge in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which have fuelled rising tensions that are in no one’s interest. The way that we collectively, as an international community, respond to this challenge will have significant ramifications for Asia’s continued peace and prosperity.
The United States takes no position on conflicting claims of sovereignty over disputed features. We do, however, urge all parties to explain and advance their positions in terms of international law.  We believe claimant states should resolve their differences through peaceful means, including available legal mechanisms, and renounce unilateral and destabilising actions.  
Unfortunately, in recent months the world has witnessed unilateral and unprecedented large-scale land reclamation in the South China Sea. The result: incalculable environmental damage to sensitive coral reefs, construction of military facilities, and assertions of national control over international waters and airspace. Concerns are growing among many in the region that this unilateral rush to change the status quo aims to render diplomacy moot.
Why should the United States care? Like Thailand, we have no territorial claims in the South China Sea and want to maintain good relations with all parties to the disputes.  
But like Thailand, we also have a strong economic interest in continued freedom of navigation for all nations. Half of the world’s commercial shipping – $5.3 trillion of trade – passes annually through the South China Sea. As an exporter of rice, cars, and much more, and as a seafaring nation with a large fishing fleet, Thailand has a profound stake in the status of these waters. 
More fundamentally, like Thailand, we have a deep interest in preserving the rules-based international order, a system grounded in international agreements, voluntarily undertaken, that has brought seven decades of unprecedented prosperity to all countries in the Asia-Pacific. The rule of law must be the principle governing international relations.  
A rules-based order sets limits on the strong and makes space for smaller nations. It offers fairness and predictability, both prerequisites for stability. Upholding such a system is in all of our interests.
Soon, an arbitral tribunal under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention will issue a decision in the Philippines versus China case.  The Law of the Sea Convention, to which both the Philippines and China are signatories, clearly states that a tribunal decision is “final and shall be complied with by all the parties to the dispute”. This is true even if one party boycotts the proceedings.  
The tribunal considered the question of jurisdiction, reviewing both sides’ arguments, and unanimously determined that the outcome – whatever it may be – will be binding on both parties. 
The legal issues at stake in the case do not affect any country’s ability to claim ownership of land features, but may clarify the rights claimants legally have to the seas around those features. The decision might therefore significantly narrow the geographic area of ocean under dispute, which could help de-escalate tensions.
The tribunal’s coming decision presents all of us with a choice: to speak out in support of the rule of law, or to remain silent and see the region move away from a system that has brought everyone remarkable benefits, to one where “might makes right”.  
Failure to support international legal mechanisms could encourage further destabilising behaviour, not only in the South China Sea but also in other areas. Management of the Mekong River comes to mind. The ability to rely on international agreements, including those governing trade and investment, could likewise be undermined. When international law is weakened, uncertainty grows, economic growth slows, and conflict becomes more likely.
We all have a responsibility to support the system of rules that has made the region stable and more prosperous. Such stability and prosperity ultimately are what is at stake in the South China Sea.
Glyn T Davies is the United States ambassador to Thailand.

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