South China Sea Fireworks at MILOPS

By Benjamin Wittes
Tuesday, June 4, 2013, 11:19 AM

Last year, I posted this remarkable set of slides from the Chinese presentation at the MILOPS conference in Singapore, slides entitled "China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea: Understanding the South China Sea issue from the angle of law.” Today, participants in this year's MILOPS conference in Bangkok saw a remarkable exchange between the Chinese representative and that of one of the countries that does, in fact, dispute China's "indisputable sovereignty" over some of those islands: the Philippines.

I'm a little hamstrung in writing about this, both because my knowledge of these disputes is pretty limited and because while I have permission from the Philippines representative---Henry Bensurto of that country's foreign ministry---to summarize his remarks, I do not have analogous permission from the Chinese side. But suffice it to say that two successive MILOPS conferences, both of which have featured sharp exchanges between China and several of its neighbors on this subject, have convinced me that I need to get up to speed on it. It has also convinced me that this set of disputes---at which I have always rolled my eyes as just so much nationalist chest-thumping about half-submerged rocks---is really a very serious set of potential flash points.

Bensurto offered a hard-hitting account of the aggressive Chinese claims in the South China Sea---along the way to describing the Philippines request for arbitration by a UN tribunal under the Law of the Sea Convention. China has rejected the idea of arbitration, and the tribunal has to determine, as a threshold matter, whether it has jurisdiction to hear the case. Bensurto described the Chinese posture towards the South China Sea---and the so-called "nine-dash line" it has drawn, through which it claims sovereignty over nearly all of the sea---in scathing terms. He compared Chinese offers of cooperative development of the sea's resources to an offer, having asserted ownership of the coat of the guy next to you, to wear the coat on alternate days. At another point, he derided Chinese offers of friendship, saying that the Philippines would be happy to take China's hand but that handshakes are hard when your interlocutor is standing on one's foot.

Rather than try to describe the dispute in detail, I have asked another participant in the conference---one who is quite expert on matters related to Law of the Sea---to guest post on it. And of course, if Bensurto or the Chinese representative wish to guest post as well and describe their country's positions, I would be more than happy to post their views in their own words.