On Tuesday in the Hague, the Permanent Court of Arbitration rejected China’s claims that a scattering of rocks and reefs in the contested South China Sea qualify as Exclusive Economic Zones for China. The court found in favor of the Philippines’ lawsuit that argued against China’s claims. We asked contributors to this ChinaFile Conversation for their reactions to the decision and thoughts about Beijing’s rejection of the ruling. What happens next?
The Hague award in the Philippines vs. China arbitration case is an extraordinary verdict in the history of international maritime law. Never before has an international tribunal in this field ruled in such a lopsided manner in favor of one party in a case of great geopolitical significance. China’s legal experts have quickly raised some serious questions about the merits of the various findings and judgments of the award. These will no doubt be subject to more serious study in the future.
Whatever the legal merits, however, the sweeping nature of the award is politically counterproductive. Julian Ku points out that the award is going to make resolution of the disputes between the Philippines and China harder rather than easier. I would add that it would further complicate China’s internal difficulties—already massive— in fashioning a conciliatory South China Sea policy.
In the final months before the announcement of the award, there were signs that the Chinese government—at least the Foreign Ministry—was looking for a way out of the embroiling arbitration case. Beijing’s official snub at the case notwithstanding, the Foreign Ministry took it very seriously and staged an exhaustive public campaign to seek international support for China’s position. Chinese diplomats privately complained about the costs of spending so much diplomatic energy and resources over this case. They were hoping that in the event of a more or less balanced award, Beijing could quietly ignore it while starting a new diplomatic negotiation process with the Philippines.
This position of ignoring the award while seeking negotiation with the Philippines is clear from two important documents the Chinese government released immediately after the award: a statement about China territorial sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea and a white paper on settling the disputes with the Philippines through negotiation. Both documents mention the so-called nine-dash line map only in passing. Instead, the statement announces China’s readiness to make practical temporary arrangements with the Philippines to reduce tension and seek cooperation.
Those documents were clearly prepared beforehand. They show that the Foreign Ministry is engineering important policy changes in this vital area. Now, this lopsided award—so sweeping in nature that it is rejected by both mainland China and the new pro-independence government in Taiwan—has put the credibility of the Foreign Ministry’s efforts on the line, especially in the eyes of growing domestic nationalistic criticisms. The very unfortunate effect of the award is to stir up Chinese nationalism while undermining moderate voices represented by professional diplomats. Whatever the failings of the Foreign Ministry, it is still China’s best hope of shaping a peaceful and responsible approach to the world.
I have earlier identified three camps inside China vying for policy influence over the South China Sea: the realists, hardliners, and the moderates. From the perspective of Chinese domestic policy debates, the biggest winner of the award is the hardliners, who have long held that the case is but an American conspiracy against China. The realists’ position will remain secure, although they are likely to be pulled toward the hardliners’ direction. The moderates are now in a very precarious situation, further besieged by attacks from all sides. That’s hardly a desirable outcome for China’s South China Sea policy or for Asia’s troubled maritime order.