On July 12 the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCOA), a panel of five legal scholars established by The Hague Peace Conference, will release its decision on a maritime dispute filed by the Philippines against China in 2013. The dispute involves China’s “Nine Dash Line” (NDL) that defines China’s territorial claims over much of the South China Sea, including areas concurrently claimed by other countries in the region, including the Philippines.
The Philippines’ claim is based on the United Nations’ Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to which China is a signatory. It grants all countries territorial borders of 12 nautical miles extending from their shoreline to the open ocean. It further grants Exclusive Economic Zones for an additional 200 miles, an area which the NDL penetrates in some locations.
China, for its part, refuses to recognize the authority of the PCOA in this dispute and has refused to participate in the hearings. It has also repeatedly and quite emphatically said that it will not be bound by its ruling, which many expect will be in favor of the Philippines.
The Chinese believe that such territorial disputes should be settled through dialogue between the two countries and has offered to meet face to face with the Manila government for that purpose. The US, however, has actively campaigned for acceptance of the PCOA’s ruling throughout the region and has parked two carrier groups in the region as a show of strength and resolve.
So, what will happen if the ruling goes as expected?
I am quite confident that the Chinese will not back down. I don’t see how they can. They have too much invested in the issue to back away now. China has actively been building man-made islands throughout the South China Sea to support its territorial claims and President Xi Jinping has been vocal and resolute, at home and abroad, about the depth of his resolve on the matter.
And there is one issue that trumps all others – a growing and ironclad sense of nationalism among the Chinese people. They want strong leadership and President Xi knows it.
What many Westerners don’t fully appreciate is what the Chinese call the Century of Humiliation, which began with the Opium Wars and ended when the Communists defeated the Nationalists in 1949. It was a period during which China was quite literally raped, pillaged, and carved up by aggressive foreign powers. With their newfound wealth, military might, and global standing the Chinese people have a deep emotional commitment to never let it happen again. And who can blame them?
What the Communist Party of China fears more than anything else is social instability. The Chinese people have shown throughout history that they are willing to make incredible sacrifices in the name of regime change when they don’t believe their lives are improving. And a very big part of what the Chinese find important in life is respect.
Now enter the US. The American government argues that it is the only country that can be trusted to maintain navigational freedom in the South China Sea. In addition to being more than a little arrogant – even insulting – this strikes me as disingenuous.
After all, the US is not a party to the current dispute. And would anyone seriously argue that the Philippines is in a position to uphold maritime freedom more effectively than China?
Perhaps more importantly, for anyone who has been following the US presidential election, neither presumptive candidate comes off as all that trustworthy or committed to international peace and freedom. Imagine you are sitting in China or the Philippines and watching this debacle of an election unfold. Would you be inclined to support American control of an area that borders your most populated and economically important coastal cities?
Given the current state of American politics, in fact, it’s hard to believe that President Obama could muster much support among the American people for any armed conflict with China.
Given all of these considerations, does it really matter who is right and who is wrong in this dispute? In the real world we currently live in I don’t think it does. History is a movie, not a post card. Territories have never stood still over time. Just look at the history of the US, which began as a relatively small enclave of 13 colonies, all of which were taken by force, not granted by an arbitration committee of legal experts.
I’ve never seen much sense in futility and this is no exception. The US has little to gain by muscling its way into this debate and the reality is that China has put no restrictions whatsoever on maritime trade through the region. If it did that might be a game-changer but what rationale does it have for doing so short of some foreign power with a powerful navy threatening its key coastal cities by their proximity?
That’s particularly true given what is happening in Taiwan at the moment. China considers Taiwan to be a renegade province and is committed to a ‘one China’ policy. To date, however, the new President of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, has yet to endorse that policy, resulting in considerable friction between Beijing and Taipei.
The US is an ally of Taiwan, of course, and it will lose considerable good will and bargaining power to resolve any escalating dispute with Beijing if it takes China to task over a bunch of atolls in the South China Sea.
The US has enough on its plate. This is one dispute I think we should stand down on.
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