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Saud Bin Ahsen |

In the past few months, the South China Sea region became a hotbed of growing controversy when the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the Hague announced its decision on the Philippines’s case versus China about claims on the Scarborough Shoal.

The July 12 decision fuelled further tensions between the Sino-American relations on the one hand as the US has been following up the case under freedom of navigation against China’s position which holds a historical claim over 80% of the Sea.

On the other hand, the East Asian nations of Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Philippines’ position got a boost as they share the littoral water including Spratley islands and Paracel islands.

Pakistan which has all along tried to keep somewhat neutral and balanced position had to abandon this neutrality and support China before and in the aftermath of the historic decision by the PCA.

In this piece, I have tried to examine the Arbitral Award as well as post Award developments which have remained relatively calm due to change of government in the Philippines, more titled towards China than towards the US.

Thus, Pakistan has got a breathing space in between but in the long run, Pakistan will have to tread carefully in order to retain its all-weather friendship with China and at the same time, engaging the East Asian nations in its quest to attain Full Dialogue Partnership with ASEAN.

China has a bigger purpose beyond Pakistan (i.e. OBOR) and its own economic interests in the CPEC but Pakistan needs China’s support in facing ‘increasing isolation’ propped by India with the tacit support of the US and to some extent Afghanistan.

Pakistan which has all along supported China on the South China Sea-related issues has also good relations with the ASEAN countries some of whom are claimants in the S. China Sea. Pakistan has been in the quest to attain, like India, the Full Dialogue Partnership in ASEAN.

Until recent past, the ratcheting up of the issue was causing rumblings and anger in Manila and Hanoi about Pakistan’s complete support to its ‘all-weather friend (China) on this issue.

Matters could have worsened in the aftermath of the 12 July 2016 PCA Award, had the Philippines not changed their Government which has put down the Award aside and opened the prospects of dealing with China through bilateral means instead of resorting to Award or outside powers’ support. Thus, Pakistan seems to have ‘escaped’ unscathed at least in the present circumstances.

Pakistan-China strategic relations

Understandably, Pakistan’s strategic relations with China are important and have assumed further impetus in the wake of increasingly closer ties between India and the US towards realizing the US ‘Asia Pivot’ objectives.

Pakistan would do well to endeavor in improving its relations, if difficult with India, at least with Iran and Afghanistan to reduce all-sided pressures.

The latest example is the Chinese support in blocking India’s entry into Nuclear Suppliers Group for the sake of Pakistan despite the immense US and other countries’ pressure.

CPEC is another project which no other country can engage at this scale except China. China has a bigger purpose beyond Pakistan (i.e. OBOR) and its own economic interests in the CPEC but Pakistan needs China’s support in facing ‘increasing isolation’ propped by India with the tacit support of the US and to some extent Afghanistan.

Pakistan would do well to endeavor in improving its relations, if difficult with India, at least with Iran and Afghanistan to reduce all-sided pressures. It must also remain engaged with the South East Asian countries by deepening economic and trade ties and at the same time, take a low profile in matters related to the South China Sea.

Our Chinese friends could be explained the situation. And it should not be tall order now that the most of the claimant states (except Vietnam) realize the importance of the neighborhood and are keen to settle relevant issues through peaceful means including the dialogue.

Pakistan regarded any threat to China’s interests as a threat to its own interest. Pakistan supported China’s efforts to resolve the South China Sea issue through peaceful means and diplomacy

Pakistan’s Stance on the issues of South China Sea

Since 2012, Pakistan has supported several times China’s stand on the South China Sea. In the 19th ARF meeting held in July 2012, in deference to the wishes of the Chinese delegation, Pakistan’s former Foreign Minister spoke after the Chinese delegation’s remarks, and fully supported the Chinese position on the South China Sea. Pakistan stressed the need for the peaceful settlement of all disputes as agreed upon in the earlier multilateral commitments in Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties.

In a Press Release issued by the Ministry on 02 November 2012, following the fifth round of Pakistan-China Strategic dialogue in Beijing, it was stated that “Pakistan regarded any threat to China’s interests as a threat to its own interest. Pakistan supported China’s efforts to resolve the South China Sea issue through peaceful means and diplomacy.”

During the 17th Ministerial Conference of Non-Aligned Movement held in Algeria in June 2014, Pakistan delegation mediated between ASEAN and China to finalize the language of the NAM Declaration.

In the 24th meeting of the State Parties to United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in June 2014, Vietnam and the Philippines made strong allegations of violations of the UNCLOS by China in the South China Sea.

China rejected the allegations and took the view that the meeting was not an appropriate forum to discuss any specific issue like the South China Sea. Pakistan supported the Chinese position.

China rejected the allegations and took the view that the meeting was not an appropriate forum to discuss any specific issue like the South China Sea. Pakistan supported the Chinese position.

Read more: Chinese Actions in South China Sea frighten US & its allies?

Pakistan’s diplomatic support to China on international forums

During the 22nd ARF Ministerial meeting in Kuala Lumpur on 6 August 2015, Adviser to the Prime Minister on National Security and Foreign Affairs supported the Chinese three-point initiative.

In his statement, the Adviser said that “Pakistan feel that all states in the South China Sea region shall adhere to the principles of international law and effectively undertake the implementation of Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and enter into consultations to ensure that all states follow international law in protecting freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. Other states should also contribute to these efforts by defusing tensions and promoting a peaceful resolution of the issue”.

Pakistan also supported China at 12th ASEM Senior Officials Meeting in Luxembourg in November 2015 and at the 11th ASEM Summit in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia on 15-16 July 2016.

Traditionally, Pakistan has advocated that maintenance of peace and security is a collective responsibility of all parties. Matters of sovereignty and territorial disputes should be resolved through peaceful means without resorting to using force.

We urge all parties to exercise restraint with a view to creating a positive climate for the eventual resolution of all contentious issues with due respect to universally recognized principles of international law and maintain freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.

Pakistan welcomes the adoption of the Guidelines for the Implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea in July 2011 in Bali and the continued efforts by ASEAN and China to effectively implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea as an important step to achieve a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC), which would help to promote peace and stability in the region.

In a meeting held between the Adviser and Chinese Foreign Minister in China in April 2016, both sides agreed that disputes should be resolved peacefully by sovereign states directly concerned through consultation and negotiations in accordance with relevant bilateral agreements and the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.

The two sides oppose any unilateral imposing of one’s side position on the other. The two sides agreed that countries outside the region should fully respect the efforts by China and ASEAN countries to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea and play a constructive role.

Pakistan respects China’s position on Article 298 of UNCLOS. Following the ruling of Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Philippines’ favor, Pakistan issued a Press Release endorsing the position taken at the meeting between the Adviser and Chinese Foreign Minister in China in April 2016.

Read more: Trump risks war with Beijing if US blocks access to South China Sea, state media warns

Pakistan’s Position in the aftermath of 12th July Arbitration Award

During the 23rd ARF Ministerial meeting in Vientiane, Lao PDR on 26 July 2016, Adviser to the Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs, in his statement, said that “Pakistan feels that disputes should be resolved peacefully by directly concerned sovereign states through consultation and negotiations in accordance with relevant bilateral agreements and the Declaration on Conduct of Parties.

Luckily for Pakistan, the entire situation changed after the election a new President in the Philippines. Not only new president did not raise the issue at the ASEAN Summit held in Laos on 7 September 2016

The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) was established in 1994. It comprises 27 members: the 10 ASEAN member states (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Burma, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam), the 10 ASEAN dialogue partners (Australia, Canada, China, the EU, India, Japan, New Zealand, ROK, Russia and the United States), one ASEAN observer (PNG) as well as the DPRK, Mongolia, Pakistan, Timor-Leste, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

The ARF is a key forum for security dialogue in Asia, complementing the various bilateral alliances and dialogues. It provides a setting in which members can discuss current regional security issues and develop cooperative measures to enhance peace and security in the region.

Analysis of the situation

Pakistan has openly sided with China in its South China Sea dispute with important ASEAN member states as is amply evident from its post-arbitral award official pronouncement reflected above. This position has been stated by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister at the Asian Cooperation Dialogue Meeting held in Bangkok on 10 October 2016. Thus, for Pakistan, keeping its ties intact with the claimant states in ASEAN would have required a balancing act of great diligence.

Luckily for Pakistan, the entire situation changed after the election a new President in the Philippines. Not only new president did not raise the issue at the ASEAN Summit held in Laos on 7 September 2016 but he openly started ‘bashing’ the US and its past ‘wrongdoing’ with his countrymen. It seems China has ignored the decision of the Arbitration and clearly pursued and to a great extent succeeded in following up the issues bilaterally, especially with the complaint tiff country Philippines.

It seems China has ignored the decision of the Arbitration and clearly pursued and to a great extent succeeded in following up the issues bilaterally, especially with the complaint tiff country Philippines.

In October 2016, President Duterte confirmed that his country would not participate in joint military drills with the US which were scheduled for 2017. Mr. Duterte subsequently paid an official visit to Beijing on 20 October. On the eve of a visit to China, Duterte said, “I announce my separation from the United States … both in military and economics also.” Thus, he left no room for ambiguity as to where his allegiance lies.

During the visit, he was quoted while meeting businessmen in Beijing: “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow. And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines, and Russia. It’s the only way.”

Again, on the eve of his departure to Peru for APEC Summit (17 November 2016), Mr. Duterte said that he would readily join a new order with China and Russia. “You know, if China and Russia would decide to create a new order, I would be the first to join.” He added: “Kaya iyan ang leksyon natin (That’s our lesson).

Just because it is America, it does not mean that it is good”In early November 2016, Prime Minister Najib Razzak of Malaysia- another South China Sea claimant country paid an official visit to Beijing. Reportedly Najib agreed with the Chinese premier “to further advance the proper settlement of the South China Sea issue on a bilateral channel and through dialogue”.

Thus, it seems Pakistan’s official position seems vindicated and Pakistan would not be going against the broad consensus within the ASEAN region to play the issue down and give no pretext to outside powers to exploit the situation. However, Pakistan needs to be cautious on two counts at least.

Options for Pakistan

Firstly, the US does not seem happy about the way things have turned up in the region and the rise of China needs to be ‘contained.’ Thus, Pakistan will bear some consequences for its South China Sea policy and all-out support in materialization of CPEC-related Projects to reach Gwadar which seems more in China’s interest than for Pakistan as it gives China an alternate opening avoiding the Straits of Malacca and also shortening the distance of 6 weeks to two weeks, even less.

Secondly, India will continue to play the US fiddle in the region at the expense of Pakistan vis-a-vis some of the countries in the region. This is what India did when Prime Minister Mr.  Modi visited Singapore and Vietnam in September this year. It seems India is displeased with what Chinese Prime Minister said during his meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session on 21 September: “China will stand with Pakistan. We support Pakistan and we will speak for Pakistan at every forum. We attach great importance to Pakistan’s position on Kashmir. Pakistan itself is a victim of terrorism. We hope that there will be a better understanding of Pakistani position on Kashmir by the international community.”

However, Pakistan needs to be cautious on two counts at least.  It is worth mentioning that New Delhi thinks it has a stake in what happens in East Asian waters. India’s eastern islands are only about 90 miles from the western approach to the Strait of Malacca, and the South China Sea connects the two great oceans on which India increasingly depends for its prosperity. India is separated from the rest of Asia by the Himalayas, so Indian businesses are especially dependent on sea-borne commerce.

About 55 percent of its trade, for instance, crosses the South China Sea. No wonder Vietnam, Japan, Singapore, Australia, the Philippines, and the US have all worked steadily this decade to involve India in the affairs of the troubled region. During the September 2016 visit to Hanoi by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India and Vietnam decided to upgrade their nearly decade-long “Strategic Partnership” to “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”. Pakistan has to watch its regional interests and do ‘the balancing act’ skilfully, particularly with regard to its relations with Vietnam while taking a Pro-China stance on the South China Sea.

Saud Bin Ahsen is Post-Grad student of Public Administration at Institute of Administrative Sciences (IAS), University of the Punjab, Lahore and associated with a Think Tank Institute. He is interested in Comparative Public Administration, Post-Colonial Literature, and South Asian Politics. He can be reached at saudzafar5@gmail.com

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