In 2010, Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi famously declared, as he glowered at his Singapore counterpart, that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact”. But small countries can draw upon weapons of the weak. On Tuesday, July 12, as part of a case brought by the Philippines, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague issued a remarkable, wide-ranging, and stinging rebuke of China’s exercise of power in the South China Sea. The implications for Asia’s maritime disputes, US-China tensions, and India’s approach to the region could be serious and far-reaching.
The South China Sea is not a new dispute. In the 1980s, for instance, Vietnam lost around 60 sailors in a clash with China. But in the six years after Yang’s blunt observation, China established a series of new and significant facts on the ground — or, more precisely, in the water. It constructed artificial islands at breakneck speed, placed missile batteries and radar facilities on others, and declared a provocative Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the nearby East China Sea. American warships responded by pointedly ignoring Chinese claims and sailing right up to Chinese-claimed areas, in so-called freedom of navigation operations. In June 2012, a standoff between the Philippines and China culminated in Chinese forces taking control of Scarborough Shoal in the north part of the South China Sea. The next year, Manila brought a broad case against China under the United Nations Convention on the law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which both are signatories. China angrily rejected its jurisdiction, but it was taken up regardless by a tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
Read | Explained: What the South China Sea dispute is all about
That tribunal’s ruling is a landmark. It found against China on every important point, but on three in particular. First, it shattered the validity of China’s infamous ‘nine-dash line’, according to which Beijing claims 85% of the South China Sea. “There was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources”, noted the judges, and the line was “contrary to the Convention and without lawful effect”. This in itself is a serious blow to decades of Chinese diplomacy, given that the line first appeared (with eleven dashes) in 1947. Second, the tribunal says that key features claimed by China are not naturally habitable, and therefore cannot generate a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). This de-legitimises many of China’s artificial islands in those supposed EEZs, undercuts its demands as to what foreign warships can and can’t do in those areas, and erodes its claim to natural resources discovered in the future. Third, the tribunal reprimands not just China’s claims, but also its behaviour. China violated the Philippines’ rights by interfering with fishing and oil exploration, it created a “serious risk of collision” in doing so, knowingly caused “irreparable harm to the marine environment, and has aggravated the dispute by building new islands”.
China had declared it would ignore the verdict, and so it has. The state news agency Xinhua tweeted abuse at the “law-abusing tribunal” and its “ill-founded award”. It is unenforceable, short of starting a war with Asia’s largest power. There will be no sanctions. But there are important consequences. Xi Jinping has staked national pride in the South China Sea, and will face domestic pressure to respond to a legal humiliation. This could take the form of vitriolic, if harmless, rhetoric. But it could be something more threatening, such as fresh military deployments or even direct confrontation with the Philippines. The United States is right to have pre-emptively deployed a second aircraft carrier in the region. The ruling, and its categorical rejection by Beijing, will also reinforce the widespread sense, in the West and within Asia, that China is taking a cavalier approach to international law and, more broadly, the nebulous idea of the rules-based international order. Whether these perceptions are right or wrong — and there is surely some irony in the fact the US has not ratified UNCLOS, the very convention at stake here — it will contribute to the geopolitical balancing against China that we see amongst Asia’s largest powers, notably Japan, Vietnam, and India.
Read | A flashpoint in the sea
India has become increasingly engaged on the South China Sea over the past two years, sending four warships there for a months-long deployment in May. The award comes at an awkward moment in Sino-Indian relations, in the aftermath of India’s foiled bid for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Beijing’s rejectionism also stands in obvious contrast to New Delhi’s dignified acceptance of its defeat to Bangladesh at the hands of the same Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2014. The distinction, and what it says about the nature of each country’s rise, will not be lost on smaller Asian countries balancing their relations with India and China. India will also have to consider the implications for its near seas. Not only is China’s uncompromising approach a possible indication of its broader behaviour, but intensified US-China competition in the western Pacific, far from tying down Chinese forces, may well induce China to redouble its efforts to protect sea-lanes in the Indian Ocean.
Shashank Joshi is senior research fellow, Royal United Services Institute RUSI. The views expressed are personal.