On July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague handed down its long-awaited ruling on a case brought by the Philippines against China regarding the South China Sea. Judging by the international reactions to the ruling so far, the consensus (outside China at least) has been that this is “a huge win” for the Philippines and a “devastating blow” to China. These characterizations are technically correct, as the extent of the awards favoring the Philippines even surprised the many experts who had always anticipated China’s defeat.
Historic as the ruling appears to be, will it herald a new era in the long-running South China Sea disputes? Will the verdict strengthen the hands of the Philippines and other small claimants? The jury, I think, is still out.
Counterintuitively perhaps, the very sweeping nature of the arbitration victory for the Philippines makes this victory highly impractical if it is ever to be carried out in practice. The ruling dramatically strikes down China’s territorial claims to historic rights in the South China Sea. As a result, this seems to have wiped clean the slate for the Philippines and other contenders in these extremely complicated disputes. If only matters were that simple.
Now experts are plowing through the legal details of the ruling, but at the same time we should not lose sight of the fact that the disputes have never been purely a legal or technical matter. Whether islands or not, those features in the South China Sea have long taken the meaning of being symbols of sovereignty, for all the claimants concerned. In China’s case, those symbols also remind the Chinese of their disastrous encounters with the Western imperial powers during the so-called “century of humiliation.” To the extent that these disputes are laced with competing historical memories, emotions, and national pride, no amount of arbitration, however decisive the results may seem, would be able to put the matter to rest.
International laws and norms are no doubt integral to modern international politics, as they should be, but unfortunately the latter is always more than the sum total of the former. As Harvard Professor Graham Allison notes, “none of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council have ever accepted any international court’s ruling when (in their view) it infringed their sovereignty or national security interests.” If the most strident advocates of a rules-based international order, notably the United States and Britain, have so far failed to follow the verdicts of international courts, don’t hold your breath for Beijing. In fact, China’s rebuke came swiftly just hours after the ruling.
This is not to say that the ruling will just be “a piece of waste paper” as China has claimed. This episode will go down as a classic case of China flouting international law. As a result its international image will suffer for years to come. But we all know that this is not the first time China has borne huge reputational costs. Indeed, in the lead up to the ruling, China as an assertive bully had already become something of a cliché. Therefore, this new blow can only do that much new damage. There surely will be some soul-searching in China about this loss of face, but anyone familiar with Chinese culture would know well that this public humiliation is more likely than not to harden China’s position, contrary to the hope of some that China might buckle under the new international pressure.
Indeed, at a time when the Chinese government is facing numerous internal challenges, the latest blow might inadvertently help Beijing to divert attention away from home. If the United States, along with the Philippines, Vietnam, and other countries, now decide to drive a harder bargain against China, Beijing will feel compelled to respond in kind. The characteristically hawkish but popular newspaper Global Times in China recently wrote that should the United States deploy more military forces to the South China Sea, “China should speed up building its military capabilities of strategic deterrence” in the area.
Beijing’s widely-publicized assertive actions in the region, such as land reclamation and airstrip construction, need to be understood in the broader context of intensified international pressure, particularly from the U.S. pivot to Asia. The inconvenient truth is that China is here to stay and it has a greater geographical advantage and more resources to gradually alter the status quo on the ground in its favor if it feels pressured to do so. As the satellite images of China’s island construction show, the past stand-offs have already resulted in more Chinese permanent marks in the South China Sea. It is hard to predict what China will do next, but Beijing has warned that whether it will set up an air defense identification zone will be contingent on the level of threats it faces.
If tensions continue to simmer, the net effect is that the smaller claimants would be probably left worse off vis-à-vis China in their territorial tussles. This is especially so if subsequently the United States needs to turn its military attention elsewhere. But even granted that the U.S. has both the will and resources to stay the course in the region, the growing rivalry between the U.S. and China is hardly in the best interest of this region as a whole. For one thing, if the South China Sea is to become the defining issue between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), that would be the beginning of the end of ASEAN as a coherent grouping. The upcoming ASEAN Regional Forum provides a good opportunity to reflect on this challenge.
Paul Reichler, lead lawyer for the Philippines, claims that the PCA ruling is “a complete and total victory for the Philippines,” but China might emerge as a bigger winner if this legal victory leads some politicians to act on the belief that it’s now time to rein in Beijing.
Chengxin Pan is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Deakin University. He is the author of Knowledge, Desire and Power in Global Politics: Western Representations of China’s Rise (Edward Elgar, 2012).