Abe targets Japan’s pacifist constitution; North Korean anger over US missile base in South Korea; New British prime minister Theresa May. By Hamish McDonald.

Hague rules against China’s ‘9-dash line’

Philippine fishermen prepare for  a foray in the Spratly Islands this week, as The Hague ruled on China’s claims to the area.
Philippine fishermen prepare for a foray in the Spratly Islands this week, as The Hague ruled on China’s claims to the area.
Credit: Jez Aznar / Getty Images

The modern nation of the Philippines, it is said, was created out of the Inquisition and Hollywood, reflecting its successive colonial tutors. The last one seems to have left an American reliance on lawyers.

And so it was that on Tuesday, the country often seen as the weakest in maritime South-East Asia won a convincing victory against the region’s biggest bully in a distant courtroom, when the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague upheld virtually all of Manila’s claims against China’s assertion of sovereignty over contested waters.

Most notably, the tribunal dismissed China’s claim to sovereignty over much of the South China Sea within the so-called nine-dash line scooping down towards the coasts of the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. It found that the waters were accessed by fishermen and traders from several countries, and that in any case such historical claims were superseded by China’s accession to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. “The Tribunal concluded that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’,” it said in a statement.

It also found that the Spratly Islands, on which China has been dredging sand to build up the surface artificially, could not naturally sustain human habitation, and hence generated no territorial or resource zones around them. The waters around the islands should therefore be assigned partly to the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines. Structures on reefs within 200 miles of the Philippines coast, such as the reclamation on Mischief Reef, and the exclusion of Philippine fishing boats and petroleum explorers, were a violation of the smaller country’s sovereign rights.

China did not appear at the tribunal, although via a plea by an obscure Hong Kong think tank it did apparently seek at the last minute to challenge its jurisdiction. Its immediate reaction was a statement from its foreign ministry: “The award is invalid and has no binding force. China does not accept or recognise it.”

The challenge China now faces is whether to defy the court, the Philippines and other nations by moving ahead with its island-building − such as on the Scarborough Shoal where Philippine marines are showing the flag in a beached ship, 140 miles from their coastline and well within the claimed 200-mile EEZ − as well as by holding military exercises, or seeking a face-saving win-win development deal with new Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte. The usual suspects among Beijing’s authorised commentariat were giving mixed signals.

1 . ‘Normal’ Nippon

To China’s east, where, in elections last Sunday for the upper house of Japan’s parliament, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe won a two-thirds majority for his ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its allies.

Combined with his similar majority in the lower house of the Diet, this allows him to push ahead with his goal of revising Japan’s pacifist constitution, written by the Americans during the postwar occupation, and make Japan what he calls a “normal” nation.

Whether he dares put the necessary bills to the Diet is another thing. The LDP itself is divided about whether the war-renouncing Article 9 of the constitution needs to be revised at all. Many conservatives are happy enough with the “reinterpretation” of the article that Abe has already introduced, which allows Japan to commit its armed forces virtually anywhere in “collective self-defence” with its United States ally. The LDP’s coalition partner, Komeito, is ambivalent. If amendment legislation is passed, the changes would then need to be put to a referendum. Abe hardly mentioned Article 9 in his campaigning, and the voter turnout was a listless 55 per cent.

Still, China and North Korea are doing their best to make the Japanese think about war. Abe is meanwhile doing his bit to make them forget about the last time. At the national broadcaster NHK, all announcers have been ordered to pronounce the country’s Japanese name as the pre-1945 “Nippon” instead of the postwar “Nihon”.

A current affairs program that followed the 7pm news has been replaced with travelogues. The usual documentaries leading up to the anniversaries of the atom bombings and surrender of August 1945 have vanished. The LDP recently urged parents and students to report when teachers – a famously pacifist profession in postwar Japan – violate “political neutrality”.

2 . Koreas go ballistic

Pyongyang has gone ballistic after South Korea announced on July 8 it had agreed on the US stationing a battery of anti-missile defences, in response to North Korea’s steady pursuit of nuclear capability with a series of test explosions of warheads and test firings of missiles.

The anti-missile system is known as Terminal High Altitude Air Defence or THAAD. The South Koreans expect to select a site for it within a few weeks, and have it operational by the end of next year.

“There will be physical response measures from us as soon as the location and time that the invasionary [sic] tool for US world supremacy, THAAD, will be brought into South Korea are confirmed,” North Korea’s military declared. “It is the unwavering will of our army to deal a ruthless retaliatory strike and turn [the South] into a sea of fire and a pile of ashes the moment we have an order to carry it out.”

Pyongyang always says things like that. The South Koreans were more concerned to placate Beijing, after its foreign minister Wang Yi said THAAD exceeded the security needs of the Korean Peninsula, suggesting a “conspiracy behind this move”. The system includes a powerful radar that could detect missile launches in China, allowing the Americans to intercept and destroy them too. Park Geun-hye, the South Korean president, spent this week assuring the Chinese that THAAD wouldn’t be tuned their way.

Still, the cost of protecting the Kim dynasty in North Korea just doesn’t go down for its big communist ally. After losing 300,000 troops to save it in the war started by founder Kim Il-sung, then losing much diplomatic face in the flaunted effort to stop Kim Jong-il from developing nuclear weapons, it now has Kim Jong-un provoking a response that could neutralise much of China’s own nuclear force.

3 . The de-Cameron

Who wants the poisoned chalice of the British prime ministership? Not Andrea Leadsom who pulled out of the Conservative Party leadership contest just four days after the field narrowed to a two-person race between her and Theresa May.

With that the Tories scrapped the idea of putting the successor to David Cameron to a vote of the party branch members by September 9. Cameron himself was happy to skip off early. He came out of 10 Downing Street to announce he was off to see the Queen about resigning, and went back inside humming a tune variously interpreted as the theme from The West Wing or the TV cartoon of Winnie the Pooh.

The British now have a prime minister who stood against leaving the European Union in the campaign for the June 23 referendum, but not very strongly. She says she won’t rush to start the two-year countdown to Brexit from the EU. Somehow she thinks the British can retain access to the European single market yet not keep its borders open to EU nationals.

May has appointed ageing enfant terrible Boris Johnson, who’s made a career out of mocking foreigners, as her new foreign secretary. But he won’t be let loose on the Europeans he so insulted during the Brexit campaign. David Davis takes up a new cabinet position to negotiate the EU exit.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 16, 2016 as "Hague rules against China’s ‘9-dash line’".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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