Asean’s Struggle to Formulate Responses; The Hague Arbitral Tribunal Award; Freedom of Navigation Operations – Surface and Air; Regional Attitudes Towards Freedom of Navigation; Growing Security Bonds Among Regional States; Conclusion

For much of 2016, as China continued to consolidate its forward presence in the South China Sea (SCS), the centre of international attention pivoted to court proceedings in The Hague, where the arbitration case lodged by the Philippines in 2013 progressed towards its conclusion. The award, made by a tribunal panel of five judges selected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), was released on 12 July.

Anticipation of the arbitral decision drove the diplomacy of the key SCS states in the first half of the year and influenced their actions in the sea. Having made clear its refusal to accept arbitration or participate in the court case in a 2014 position paper, China directed its energies into a diplomatic campaign to delegitimise the process and line up as many states as possible in support of its position. This effort yielded modest results in the form of a collection of mostly small and/or landlocked states, including Afghanistan and Vanuatu, several of which subsequently contradicted Beijing’s claims of support. Beijing maintained a tough line in a white paper issued by the State Council Information Office in January 2017, asserting that any ‘effort to internationalise and judicialise’ the South China Sea ‘will only make it harder to resolve the issue, and endanger regional peace and stability’.

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