12 Jul 2016

NZ watches South China Sea decision

9:19 am on 12 July 2016

New Zealand and other countries are keenly awaiting a court verdict, due this evening, on who controls a key part of the South China Sea.

At around 10pm, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague will pass judgement on a Philippines claim that China is behaving illegally in exercising control of the Spratly Islands, more than 1000km south of China.

This has included building installations on the islands and on nearby reefs.

China has ignored the hearing and said the court has no jurisdiction.

A Chinese navy soldier hangs signal flags on missile destroyer Hefei during a military exercise in the South China Sea.

The Chinese missile destroyer Hefei during a military exercise in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

New Zealand is concerned because it exports $11.5 billion worth of exports to China annually, but South East Asian nations opposed to China matter to New Zealand traders as well.

New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully told a conference in Singapore in March that New Zealand was neutral in this dispute, but wanted it settled by the rule of law.

Waikato University law professor Alexander Gillespie agreed that a legal ruling must be the way to settle the dispute.

"The International Court of Arbitration is the one to deal with the matter," he said.

"This is why you have the International Court of Arbitration and it is why you have the International Court of Justice as well.

"Sometimes it is not about the merits of the case, it is about the process to resolve these matters peacefully, and if they do not get resolved in accordance with law and arbitration, the risks of conflict and violence are very high."

Meanwhile a visiting Chinese authority has suggested the matter is not so big for New Zealand.

Wang Yuzhu heads APEC and East Asian matters for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

He has been in this country briefing foreign policy experts on China, and suggested New Zealand can relax over the South China Sea, because China has promised that anyone can sail through it and so New Zealand exports would not be affected.

And he said the area was definitely China's by right.

"China has already been there for 5000 years, we occupied this region so many years (ago)" he said.

"But during the Qing dynasty we were conquered by Western countries and we were weak, so we could not send our navy there, and so nearby countries occupied it."

An aerial photo shows Thitu Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea.

An aerial photo shows Thitu Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

This evening's verdict from the Hague will deal specifically with the Philippines' claim against China over the Spratly Islands.

But there are competing claims to some or all of these islands from Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei as well.

There are further overlapping claims from China, Taiwan and Vietnam over the Paracel Islands further north.

Professor Gillespie said today's verdict could set a precedent for those and also for a related dispute between China and Japan for other islands.

The case against China was brought under the United Nation's 1982 Convention of the Law of the Sea.

But China refuses to recognise the court's jurisdiction, saying its historic rights predate the UN convention.

In fact, the Chinese navy has been conducting combat drills near the Paracel Islands to reinforce its claim.

The court's findings are legally binding, but no enforcement body is available, so it is unclear what will happen if the verdict goes against China and how the country will react to it.