Despite this unhappy South China Sea ruling, Beijing must not turn its back on international law

Cary Huang says China must understand that the international legal system offers more benefit than harm to its peaceful rise, as it will enable diplomacy instead of military conflict

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 July, 2016, 1:04pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 July, 2016, 7:20pm

A landmark ruling that denied China’s sovereign claims to most of the South China Sea is the biggest diplomatic failure in Chinese history in regard to the damage done to China’s “core interests”.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on July 12 ruled unanimously in favour of the Philippines, against Chinese claims to huge swathes of the strategically important waterway. The ruling is “final and binding”, the verdict reads, which means China “legally lost” the two million square kilometres of sea encompassed by its “nine-dash line”.

It is a hard slap in the face of the leadership’s aggressive diplomacy of recent years

It is not just about national pride, but also about a nation’s exclusive rights to natural resources in the surrounding seas and beneath the seabed, and about its sovereign right to manage the ships and aircraft of other nations passing through the area, which contains some of the world’s busiest sea lanes.

It is also a hard slap in the face of the leadership’s aggressive and assertive diplomacy of recent years, as they abruptly abandoned the “hide and bide” diplomacy initiated by the late Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) and implemented by his two anointed successors.

The tribunal also condemned China for having “aggravated” tensions, “violated” Philippine sovereign rights and having caused “permanent irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem” by constructing artificial islands.

The government apparently failed to take pre-emptive action to prevent such proceedings, despite the vast majority of international legal experts warning beforehand that as far as “jurisprudential evidence” was concerned, China’s claim to historical title was invalid.

A Sino-US deal on the South China Sea is difficult, but not impossible

The Hague has no powers of enforcement and its rulings have been ignored before. And it’s true neither the United Nations nor other countries in the region have the military ability to enforce the ruling. But Beijing is under international pressure to abide by the ruling, as many will see it as evidence of China’s willingness to be either a rule abider or violator, a peacemaker or peace-breaker; a responsible rising power or an irresponsible one.

As expected, Beijing has squarely rejected the ruling. It might also have to consider withdrawing from the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, on which the court ruling is based.

But China would suffer from such a decision, as the principles of the convention are, in fact, in China’s long-term interests, as they offer the best prospect for the protection of China’s rising global interests and the avoidance of possible military conflict during its peaceful rise.

Why Beijing should seek damage control following the South China Sea decision

Beijing could use the humiliating ruling as a pretext to take provocative action, such as building more facilities or declaring an air defence identification zone in the area. But such provocations will risk further alienating regional neighbours and the world, amounting to increasing self-imposed isolation. Such activities would also undermine China’s efforts to alleviate the fear of its rise among small states in the region and its efforts to persuade these states to accept China’s leadership.

To a large degree, the international legal system will offer more benefit than harm to China’s peaceful rise, as the established rules will enable politics and diplomacy to take their natural course instead of military conflict.

All nations concerned should exercise extreme restraint as the South China Sea remains one of the most volatile, dangerous and intractable disputes in the world.

If China wants to accommodate the established global order, it should keep a low profile and adjust its tactics through quiet diplomacy and a gradual change in its rhetoric and behaviour.

Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post