That China’s acceptance of the international order is restricted to areas where its interests lie ought to have been clear to the world when it refused in 2016 to accept a ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration set up under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a signatory to the convention, yet it brazenly refused even to join the arbitration sought by the Philippines to contest Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea. Despite the tribunal endorsing its position, Philippines could not do much in the matter, as even neighbours that have similar grouses with China were prepared to offer little more than perfunctory support.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) did try to initiate a dialogue, but a robust denunciation of China’s defiance of international law was not forthcoming. The status quo subsists and even the Philippines President, Rodrigo Duterte, who assumed office the same year as the ruling, had seemed unwilling to pursue the matter. But now things might be changing.
Taking the lead from the United States, Philippines has announced it will scrap contracts with Chinese firms involved in land reclamation projects in the South China Sea. The US last Wednesday banned 24 Chinese companies, including subsidiaries of one building an airport south of Manila, from buying American products and technology because they were helping China’s military to build artificial islands in the South China Sea.
The Chinese have added more than 3,000 acres to disputed shoals and reefs in the sea and continues to do so despite its claim having been rejected by the Court of Arbitration at the Hague. Now, Philippines Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin has said, “If I find that any of those companies are doing business with us, then I would strongly recommend terminating the relationship with that company.” While Chinese belligerence in the South China Sea has led to disputes with other countries including Vietnam and Brunei, action by the Philippines, if actually taken, will be notable in the Southeast Asian context because nations in the region have generally blinked under China’s glare.
Another country that has now felt the intensity of the dragon’s glare is Norway where the visiting Chinese Foreign Minister testily told his hosts this week that any attempt to award the Nobel Peace Prize to protestors in Hong Kong would be firmly resisted and could rupture bilateral ties. Although the Prize is not decided by the Norwegian government, China clearly believes its warning will serve the purpose.
The diplomatic relationship between the two countries was frozen from 2010 to 2016 after the Noble Peace Prize was awarded to prominent Chinese dissident and human rights activist, Liu Xiaobo. Whether protestors qualify for a Peace Prize or not is for the Nobel committee to decide. But if the decision is influenced in any manner by China’s threat, it will be unfortunate