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The South China Sea Dispute from Japan's G7 to China's G20 Summit

John Kirton, Director, G7 Research Group; Co-director, G20 Research Group
July 7, 2016

On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration is expected to bring down its judgement in the arbitration case brought by the Philippines to challenge China's unilateral, very expansive claims to jurisdiction over the South China Sea based on its self-identified nine-dash line. The decision is widely expected to damage China's claims, giving the Philippines, nearby Japan and Japan's ally the United States enhanced legal legitimacy in defending the previous jurisdictional status quo.

But in the immediate lead-up to the judgement, several events could weaken the underlying strength of case of the United States and its allies. In the United States, the rise of Donald Trump has called into question the country's reliability on the Asian front, especially with his threat to shut China's imports from entering the United States and his willingness to see Japan and South Korea get nuclear weapons of their own. Britain's referendum on June 23 to leave the European Union has weakened the strength and focus of these key members of the G7 democratic club, and raised new problems for all, including an economically slowing China and stagnant Japan, about the G7's ability to materially defend its declared devotion to the rule of law. And in early July tensions rose over China's accusation that a Japanese fighter jet had put a radar lock on a Chinese one adjacent to the nearby Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, where these two countries have a direct jurisdictional dispute.

At the recent Japanese-hosted G7 summit in Ise-Shima on May 25-26, all G7 members had come together in an impressive show of unity to defend the international rule of law and jurisdictional status quo in both the South and East China Seas. There, G7 leaders stated in their concluding communiqué that "we are concerned about the situation in the East and South China Seas, and emphasize the fundamental importance of peaceful management and settlement of disputes." They thus repeated their reference from the previous year's pronouncement on the East China Sea, where Japan is a direct disputant, and on the South China Sea, where Japan is not. At Ise-Shima, G7 leaders also affirmed the freedom of navigation and overflight, international law, peaceful settlement of disputes and arbitration, and they condemned unilateral action and the use of force or coercion. Soon after the 2015 summit, a few European leaders hinted that their warships might join U.S. ones on sovereignty patrols in the South China Sea to uphold their principles, thus strengthening the U.S. and Japanese hand.

Yet the Ise-Shima communiqué also suggested a pathway to a more cooperative, if still multilateral, approach, in its call for "sustainable uses of the seas and oceans." This could provide a foundation for preventing these maritime disputes from poisoning the atmosphere and prospects for Chinese-Japanese cooperation at the forthcoming Chinese-hosted G20 summit in Hangzhou on September 4-5, 2016, and even spur the summit to success in broader ways. The G20 summit has a solid record of acting to support the maritime ecology, starting with the Russian-led initiative to agree on marine-protected areas in the wake of the deadly Macondo oil rig explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. It has acted with increasing strength and breadth again terrorism, peaking at the Antalya Summit in November 2015. Anti-piracy could be legitimately put under this umbrella. It could also be dealt with as a component of energy security, supply and access, where the G20 and the Chinese host have been increasingly ambitious of late.

While some might assume that G20 summits deal only with economics and leave hard security issues to other forums, the record tells a different tale. The meeting of finance ministers and central bankers in Ottawa in November 2001, hosted by the Honourable Paul Martin, saw the G20 members unite to act boldly against the financing of the al Qaeda terrorists who had killed so many in New York and Washington in their attacks on September 11. At the 2013 St. Petersburg Summit, the leaders devoted their opening dinner entirely to the subject of chemical weapons in Syria and the ensuing swift success of their removal. The November 2014 Brisbane Summit produced several achievements with the full participation of Russian president Vladimir Putin, despite the initial desire of some to suspend him for his aggression and annexation of Ukraine in February of that year. Earlier this year, the Japanese-headed Asian Development Bank and the Chinese-dominated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank joined to make loans to the poor in their home region where the needs are great.

In international politics, the primacy of the political and the national interest of territory retain their pride of place. But the new shared shocks and vulnerabilities brought by an intensely interconnected world mean states have many more formidable and deadly things to worry about than coveting or constructing "worthless islands," especially in the case of a country that already has the third largest territory in the world. The immediate task for China's G20 is thus to substitute tension with trust between Japan and China through ambitious cooperative agreements on the many economic, development and ecological challenges that their people and the world care most about. Then they can foster a recognition that the climate change already starting to submerge small, low-lying Pacific islands, shoals or reefs will make those that China is building a worthless, stranded Atlantis-like asset alongside coal.

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John KirtonJohn J. Kirton, is director of the G7 and G8 Research Group, and co-director of the G20 Research Group, the Global Health Diplomacy Program and the BRICS Research Group. He is also a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at China's Renmin University. A professor of political science, he teaches global governance and international relations and Canadian foreign policy. He has advised the Canadian and Russian governments, the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization on G7/8 and G20 participation and summitry, international trade and sustainable development, and has written widely on G7/8 and G20 summitry. Kirton is the author of many chapters and articles on the G7, G8 and G20. His most recent book is China's G20 Governance (Routledge, 2016). Other recent books include G20 Governance for a Globalized World (Ashgate, 2012) and (with Ella Kokotsis), The Global Governance of Climate Change: G7, G20 and UN Leadership (Ashgate, 2015), as well as The G8-G20 Relationship in Global Governance, co-edited with Marina Larionova (Ashgate, 2015). Kirton is also co-editor of several publications on the G8, the G20 and the BRICS published by Newsdesk Media, including G7 Japan: The Ise-Shima Summit 2016 and G20 Turkey: The Antalya Summit 2015.

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