On matters of sovereignty, China is following the US playbook
The Americans lost a case at an international court, denied the panel had jurisdiction, criticised and ignored the ruling, then settled with a friendlier government
A weaker country takes its case against a more powerful country to an international court. The stronger country ignores the case, saying the legal body has no jurisdiction. After it loses, it denounces the ruling and tells the other country to stuff it.
Sound familiar? No, it’s not China and the Philippines; not even the United States and Nicaragua, back in 1986.
In March this year, Argentina won its case against Britain at the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. The unanimous ruling meant the Falkland Islands – the same place Britain fought a war over – falls within the territorial waters of Argentina. British prime minister – sorry, I meant ex-PM – David Cameron duly rejected the ruling.
Granted, the South Atlantic is not as headline-grabbing as the South China Sea. But the way people react to the latest ruling at The Hague makes it sound like China is the first country that ever defied a ruling by an international panel.
But the 30-year-old case of Nicaragua, which it won against the US, is even more relevant. For one thing, it provided a legal template in the Philippines’ case against China. Why else would Manila hire as its lead lawyer Paul Reichler, who also helped win the case for Nicaragua? The guy practically wrote the book on how sovereign states can sue each other.
Ironically, though, Beijing is following, every step of the way, the US playbook in the Nicaragua case.
Step one: deny the court has jurisdiction. In China’s case, it’s the Permanent Court of Arbitration; in the US’ case, the International Court of Justice.
Step two: criticise the ruling, then ignore it.
Step three: wait for a friendlier government to emerge, then settle with it.
The US had to wait for years for the hated socialist Sandinistas to leave office after failing to oust them by illegally funding the Contra mercenaries through arms sales to Iran. China may be luckier. While former Philippines president Benigno Aquino was encouraged by the Americans and Japanese to pursue the case against China, his successor, Rodrigo Duterte, is more flexible and willing to play both sides.
My bet is that after The Hague ruling, the Philippines will tilt diplomatically towards Beijing rather than Washington.
Say what you will about Beijing, but it rarely fails to extract useful lessons from history, even American.