Decision Time on South China Sea: Beijing’s Loss Could Be Shared by All

Soldiers from China's People's Liberation Army watch the USS Blue Ridge arrive in port. Shanghai, China, May 6, 2016. (Associated Press)

Is China really “the biggest victim of the South China Sea issue”? Speaking in New York last month, former high-ranking Chinese diplomat Li Zhaoxing thought so. This view, which is firmly against the consensus of other parties to the dispute, is part of a widely observed Chinese government tradition of alleging international persecution to justify pursuit of its interests. It also sits uncomfortably with ongoing efforts to bring the Asian giant into the heart of the global liberal order. Indeed, this entire project may be in jeopardy after a tribunal in The Hague today invalidated much of Beijing’s South China Sea case.

Chinese officials had already rejected the jurisdiction of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) and, preemptively, its ruling on the landmark complaints brought by the Philippines. A PCA tribunal has now affirmed the Southeast Asian country’s exclusive economic rights in waters also claimed by Beijing. It also found that there “was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line,'” referring to a demarcation by which Beijing asserts ownership over most of the South China Sea.

Some officials had previously indicated that China may withdraw from the relevant international legislation—the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—should things go against them. The threat could have been no more than an attempt to direct the tribunal’s decision toward an unlikely victory. But, given the value China places on solidifying regional dominance, it could just as easily be the start of a large-scale retreat from international cooperation. This would go against a recent trend that includes China’s rising contributions to the UN’s peacekeeping efforts and 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, and its help in laying the groundwork for last year’s Paris climate change agreement.

Analysts have long dismissed the validity of the nine-dash line. But attempts to tie China’s invocation of historical links to the South China Sea—which its leaders say stretch back centuries, even millennia—to the very contemporary provisions of UNCLOS had not been properly tested until now, nor had the rights granted by the small geographic features Beijing claimed to own in disputed areas such as the Spratly Islands. A victory in The Hague is therefore likely to be cheered by Vietnam, Malaysia, and other South China Sea claimants, in addition to the Philippines. It would also seem to suit the United States as a longtime ally of most countries assembled against China, a competitor against Beijing’s growing reach, and a country that recognizes UNCLOS as customary law, even as domestic factors continue to prevent it signing on.

An overly sanguine response would nonetheless ignore the fact that the immediate result of an anti-China ruling might be no more than formalized rejection of its actions, which could continue apace. Today’s events certainly clarify issues around the legal implications of the nine-dash line; but, to the extent that it had helped head off conflict until now, this might have been considered somewhat constructive ambiguity. A worst case scenario would tie all parties into a course of action that legitimately threatens peace and security in the region and, owing to China’s great size and influence, around the world.

Beijing’s state-run media said the PCA had today issued an “ill-founded award.” It had previously called on Washington to change its attitude toward the issues at stake. Again keeping with tradition, Beijing has presented the US as the chief opponent of its local ambitions, despite the fact that the Philippines and others have actively campaigned for Washington’s greater engagement in these issues. These calls have only grown louder in line with Chinese assertiveness, which has extended to include agitating against once-neutral Indonesia and moving well past pretensions to history by building and militarizing new islands.

Regardless, the initial onus of responding to the UNCLOS ruling will fall not on the US, but on the Philippines and other directly affected countries, which will be compelled to back up their claims in some meaningful way. Washington will only be called into direct action should Manila or another government choose force as an option. Likely realizing this gravity, new Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has adopted a more conciliatory tone on China since taking power.

While decreasing the risks of conflict in the short term, the Philippines and other parties backing away from confrontation would still be a win for Chinese strategy, due to the limited on-the-ground effect it would have. Meanwhile, a withdrawal from UNCLOS—or its essential nullification through failing to abide by the tribunal’s ruling—could be a long-term loss for global order. It would at least reaffirm that Beijing supports only those cooperative instruments that suit its purpose.

This type of realpolitik is not, of course, a purely Chinese predilection, as the absence of the US and several of its allies from Beijing’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank launched in May attests. And here there is a good example of the failure to commit to the type of action that might actually help maintain a pacific China. As former World Bank President Robert Zoellick has advocated, Beijing should be engaged in creating new international frameworks that are made more palatable purely through its involvement from the beginning of the process.

In the absence of such an approach, China’s growing frustrations with the existing global order have only seen it foment division. It has reportedly convinced some 40 countries to support its South China Sea stance, supposedly to head off further UN General Assembly discussion of the issue. As the Center on International Cooperation’s Jim Della-Giacoma has pointed out, China’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council already precludes a greater role for that body.

Beijing has concurrently been seen as undermining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has been the main global body seeking to curb its South China Sea assertiveness through enforcement of a shared code of conduct and enhanced dialogue. China has been accused of encouraging ASEAN’s division via proxies Cambodia and Laos and was reportedly behind the bloc’s retraction of a strongly worded statement on the regional dispute, in June. The ruling in The Hague will have major ramifications for the future of ASEAN in this respect.

China’s next decisive move could be to declare an Air Defense Identification Zone over the South China Sea, replicating the one in the East China Sea which has served as a source of great frustration to Japan in particular. This would provide a strong indication of changing tides, given that Beijing rejected the move as recently as 2014, with Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei saying it had yet to feel any security threat in the southern body of water and was “optimistic about its relations with the neighboring countries.”

Further down the line, China may look to bring more opponents of the US and its allies under its umbrella. It is already enhancing its security partnership with Moscow and seems set to hold joint military exercises with Russia in the South China Sea this year. Given that these two powers famously fell out during the height of what should have been the ideologically unifying Cold War, a growing alliance would be further evidence of the waning allure of the system that supposedly won that major 20th century contest and a major test for those who seek to defend it.

Today’s ruling on the South China Sea comes at a time when the liberal world order is already seen as under serious threat from resurgent nationalism and other political fringes, an intensifying ideological battle involving religious extremism, and challenges to the logic of laissez-faire economics on many fronts. Beijing’s rejection of international authority would be another big blow and could perhaps inspire other countries to also withdraw from external treaties and obligations. Chinese officials may see their homeland as a victim of outside influence, but the system they object to was ultimately created to level the playing field for big and small countries alike. If the decision in The Hague serves only to entrench Beijing’s position, it will be the global community as a whole that suffers.