The Permanent Court of Arbitration, which was established in 1899, has ruled in favour of a suit brought by the Philippines that asked the court to reject China’s claims ~ the famous nine dash line ~ to historically based sovereignty over most of the South China Seas. China had, long before the ruling rejected the court’s right to rule on the matter. (China “joined” in the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 which, amongst many other things, established the court, in 1904 and 1917 ~ during the Qing Dynasty and the first Republic of China government.) The ruling is binding on both China and the Philippines, but it is a pyrrhic victory for the Philippines because there is no mechanism, anywhere, to enforce the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s rulings.
Now, the question of the day is, as asked by the Globe and Mail: What does Tuesday’s ruling mean for Beijing’s maritime ambitions?
The short answer, in my opinion, is: nothing.
China will, I think, proceed with e.g. trying to enforce an air-defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the entire South China Sea region, thereby requiring all foreign aircraft to identify themselves and seek Chinese permission to enter the airspace. China’s neighbours, and the USA, will, I suspect, ignore it and risk an occasional “game” of “bumper cars” with the Chinese Air Force.
I also believe that China will expand its island bases and, probably, add some new ones. These represent facts on the ground which are much more persuasive than historical claims or, in some respects, the UN’s Laws of the Seas. The “law” of the South China Sea will be be determined by the good sense, or lack of it, of American and Chinese leaders, diplomats and military commanders – right down to individual ship and aircraft captains. This is where the risk lies … presidents and prime ministers and paramount leaders might exercise prudent good judgement in balancing rights against risks but a young aircraft captain might be inclined to “push the envelope,” to test the extreme limits of his rules of engagement, and if his opposite number in the other airplane is equally immature then shots might be exchanged, people might die and more senior commanders might move fingers closer to even more dangerous triggers.
China expects the world to recognize that it is the dominant power in East Asia … it is both a simple and a complex thing. Simple because China is, indeed, a real regional power but complex because America is a global power and does not intend to cede East Asia to China. It’s an old diplomatic conundrum and one that is more complex today because the economic, social, military, cultural and political relationships between nations are closer than they have ever been. We live in a world of instant communications, where every move, every gesture, even every twitch and glance is seen and recorded and analyzed and probed for meaning. The margins for error have seldom been smaller and the consequences of error have rarely been greater.
Neither America nor China wants a conflict in the South China Seas. It will take skilled, multilateral diplomacy on the part of many countries ~ including Canada which has good offices in the region ~ to ensure that conflict can be avoided. The issues are not just military, they involve resources, control of trade routes, freedom on navigation, national prestige and, no doubt, military power, too. Neither America nor China is especially “skilled” at compromise and “backing down” but both may have to acquire some skills in those areas.