A question came up last week in Honolulu: what will China do if the Law of the Sea Tribunal rules in favor of the Philippines in the two nations’ quarrel over maritime territory? You get two guesses, and the first doesn’t count. Here’s mine. Beijing will not comply with an adverse ruling. Why would it accept an edict from a body created by a treaty when it flouts the explicit language of that treaty? And why would it obey at steep political cost and risk to the Chinese Communist Party? The only real questions are how Beijing will attempt to circumvent or nullify such a decision, and what damage may result from its defiance.
I’m assuming, of course, that the legal proceedings go Manila’s way. As they must. This is as close to an open-and-shut case as it gets in international law. In effect Manila is asking jurists to invalidate the nine-dashed line that Beijing has inscribed around the periphery of the South China Sea, delineating its claim to nearly all of that body of water. The nine-dashed line is outlandish on its face. China’s map dates at least to 1947, to an old Republic of China claim to regional waters. It would be astounding happenstance if the nine-dashed line, which predates the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea by 35 years, did conform to the treaty.
So much for the snap legal brief. What about the politics of UNCLOS? China’s leadership has avowed its commitment to its South China Sea claims over and over again, employing language that brooks no compromise. That China is entitled to indisputable sovereignty over the waters and land features within the nine-dashed line is a mantra. Sovereignty means physical control if it means anything at all. Or, PLA Navy grand poobah Admiral Wu Shengli once likened surrendering these claims to having your arms and legs lopped off. Incorporating these seaways into metropolitan China makes the country look awe-inspiring on the map, like a torch rather than a rooster. And on and on.
You get the idea. China’s leadership has issued an ironclad public commitment to enforce its maritime claims. And it knows the populace will hold it accountable for keeping that guarantee. It must deliver or face the consequences. In short, Beijing has left itself vanishingly little leeway for political maneuver. Can you imagine Xi Jinping going on TV to announce: “My fellow Chinese, the UNCLOS Tribunal has struck down China’s nine-dashed line in the South China Sea. In compliance with the court’s ruling, the Chinese Communist Party therefore relinquishes indisputable sovereignty over seas that have belonged to China since remote antiquity. Oh, and roosters are pretty!!!”
In short, I would be gobsmacked if Beijing amended or retracted its map of Southeast Asia. It’s worth looking downrange to ask how China may respond to the tribunal, and what repercussions may follow. One, it could simply ignore the decision. UNCLOS has no power to enforce any ukase. Little would change in practical terms, except that Beijing would have affirmed that it believes might makes right. Whatever happens, China has got the Maxim gun and the Philippines has not. What’s Manila gonna do about it?
Two, it could make a formal reply, restating how China’s historic territorial rights antedate and thus supersede UNCLOS and so forth. The usual applause line about the United States’ remaining outside the convention could go in as well.
Or three, Beijing could make a grand gesture and withdraw from UNCLOS altogether. It would be far from the first sovereign state to have second thoughts about an accord and denounce it. But having a major seafaring state leap outside the constitution for the nautical domain — and attempt to subvert it within important zones on the map — could make for parlous times. What happens to the system under such circumstances, when a founding member turns outsider turns spoiler.
It’s doubtful China, which benefits as much as anyone from the rules governing the maritime order, would do anything so rash. Doubtful, but not unthinkable. The Naval Diplomat, for one, hopes legal eagles and their political overseers think ahead about this one.