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Asia's Troubled Waters

Original Broadcast Date:
August 6, 2016(UTC)

On July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague denied China's sovereign rights in the South China Sea.

In recent years, development in the East Asia Pacific region has become one of the major driving forces for the Global economy. With China's place as one of the world's economic superpowers firmly cemented, growth among the region's middle-income nations including Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines has also had a knock-on effect for the development of other nearby countries.

At the heart of the region lies the South China Sea. The sea routes and natural resources of this maritime expanse are crucial to the strategic and economic interests not only of countries in the immediate vicinity, but for the rest of the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

But when it comes to sovereignty and economic rights, this tangled web of national interests does not make for plain sailing. The hundreds of uninhabited islands dotted around the South China Sea have long been subject to territorial claims from various regional parties.

But as with similar disputes all over the world, clear-cut historical ownership of such isolated rocky outcrops is often extremely difficult to determine with any degree of certainty, and even where scholars and legal experts may be able to reach a consensus, the acceptance of the interested parties is far from guaranteed.

And with economic growth seeing various regional stakeholders increasingly develop both the confidence and the capabilities to expand their maritime activities, these disputes have been brought very much to the fore, placing China in particular in severe disagreement with several of its neighbors.

This Asian superpower claims historic rights over the vast majority of the South China Sea, and has been actively constructing artificial islands where it has built strategic facilities such as lighthouses, radar stations and runways. China also claims the right to exploit resources across the whole extent of an area demarcated by its own "nine-dash line," which was unilaterally declared in 1949 and encloses the majority of the sea.

But neighboring countries including Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines have their own territorial claims to some of those same waters. And the stakes are raised even higher by the interest of parties from outside the Asia Pacific region itself, most notably the US, whose strategic pivot towards Asia has been a key part of the nation's foreign policy under the Obama administration.

In 2013, asserting that China's island building in disputed areas was in violation of international law, the Philippines took its case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. And this July, after close to three years of deliberations, the court rejected China's territorial claims in a landmark ruling, which was nonetheless quickly dismissed by Chinese officials, even as the Philippines and the US were making public statements on its importance and legally-binding nature.

The day after the Permanent Court of Arbitration presented its ruling, a panel consisting of experts on Asia's diplomacy, maritime safety, and military affairs joined a debate held at Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.

The discussion covered a great deal of ground, beginning with the role of the US and the reasons for its strong interest in the region, which the Asia Group's Principal, Brian Andrews, suggested ranged from respect for regional treaties, partnerships, and multilateral organizations, to a desire to advance "freedom, human rights, and the rule of law," as well as to maintain peace and ensure unimpeded commerce.

Yoji Koda, however––former Vice Admiral of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, ex-commander in chief of the Self-Defense Fleet, and now serving as an advisor to Japan's National Security Council––suggested that America's strategic rebalancing towards Asia had not succeeded in its short-term goal of curbing Chinese adventurism in the region.

Meanwhile Guifang "Julia" Xue, a professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University's KoGuan Law School, put forward the argument that China's activities were intended not only to advance its own national interests, but to secure stability in the region. She did, however, join other panelists in suggesting that recent developments may actually force the respective claimants to return to the negotiating table and establish a more workable long-term compromise, possibly based on what Xue described as "thinking embedded in Asian culture."

Director of Foreign Policy and Security Studies at Malaysia's Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Elina Noor, concurred in her optimistic reading that the recent ruling may force the respective claimants to "do more to talk with each other and address these disputes in a positive and diplomatic means," while also giving greater emphasis to the establishment of a clear-cut ASEAN-China code of conduct.


Guifang "Julia" Xue

Professor, KoGuan Law School, Shanghai Jiao Tong University
Academy Senior Fellow, International Law Programme, Chatham House

Elina Noor

Director, Foreign Policy and Security Studies,
Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia

Yoji Koda

Former Vice Admiral, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force
Former Commander-in-Chief,
Self-Defense Fleet Adviser to Japan's National Security Council

Brian Andrews

Principal, The Asia Group Former Adviser, White House National Security Council


Bonnie Glaser

Senior Adviser for Asia and Director, China Power Project, Center for Strategic and International Studies