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Foreign Policy

Reverberations of the South China Sea Decision

Jul 20 , 2016

Last week, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) issued a sweeping repudiation of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea. Its decision was soundly reasoned, clear and decisive—adjectives not always attached to international judicial rulings on interstate feuds. The PCA declared the nine-dash line invalid, held that none of the Spratly Islands generates an Exclusive Economic Zone, and censured Chinese reclamation. As expected, Chinese officials have rejected the ruling and refused to comply. Great powers routinely dismiss adverse decisions, and the Hague-based tribunal lacks a mechanism to enforce its writ. The key question is how the volatile politics surrounding the South China Sea will evolve in the shadow of such a forceful pronouncement of law.

Beijing’s diplomatic blitz, which began before the PCA issued its findings, confirms the importance of the decision. Chinese authorities understand well that receptivity to their country’s rise hinges in part on perceptions that it will play by the rules. Maintaining the argument that China has a superior legal claim was already a steep uphill climb and now looks more like a cliff. Recruiting support from friends like Russia and Cambodia and minimizing public pressure from others to comply with the decision is not free of charge. Each phone call, talking point, office visit, and online entreaty consumes resources and political capital that Chinese authorities would rather spend in other ways. This is why international judicial decisions matter even to the most powerful states: non-compliance carries costs. These costs give Chinese officials incentives to be seen as engaged in good-faith negotiations, and in that respect the decision is likely to have a constraining effect.

A decisive legal pronouncement also generates risks. It leaves much less room for face-saving compromise. China’s defiance and opprobrium challenge the tribunal’s authority and threaten it with apparent impotence. Most of China’s neighbors are reacting cautiously, and one rival maritime claimant—Taiwan—has already lambasted the court. The UN Secretary-General, whose spokesperson merely reiterated his call for peaceful dispute resolution in conformity with international law, has given the tribunal scant support. Other UN officials have distanced themselves from the PCA. Global responses to the decision thus far reflect the limits of international law more than its clout.

If UNCLOS and other international legal instruments are to be impactful, the organs established to adjudicate disputes among states require political backing. The PCA, established by the 1899 Hague Convention and housed beside the International Court of Justice, is widely regarded as a legitimate organ of international law. There is no compelling evidence to support Chinese claims of bias in the five judges selected for the case. Major UN member states and the Secretary-General should defend the tribunal and call on the parties to abide by the ruling. Yet they should endeavor to leave China room to back down from its current posture of defiance, stressing that the path to compliance lies in a halt to reclamation activities and good faith negotiations.

At the regional level, the ruling’s significance will soon be tested at the July ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting. ASEAN members have split before over communiqué language on the South China Sea, and tension will be high when foreign ministers convene in Vientiane later this week. The Philippines and Vietnam would benefit greatly from an ASEAN call upon China to abide by the PCA decision. China’s closest regional partners, including the chair from Laos, will surely object. But the result of diverging views need not be disintegration. ASEAN has a strong corporate interest in a multilateral, rules-based system that helps protect the vulnerable against the mighty. The best realistic outcome would be a communiqué re-emphasizing the need to respect international law and engage in multilateral talks toward a robust Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

The decision’s domestic political reverberations are also dangerous. Predictable nationalist backlash has begun in China, where the ruling is widely regarded more as a form of escalation than a path to resolution. Fist-pumping in the Philippines and quieter celebration in Vietnam likely foreshadows added public pressure on those governments to press their advantage. Leaders in each claimant state have an ambivalent relationship with popular nationalism, stirring it sometimes for political gain but wary of being forced into unwanted escalation. The PCA ruling tempts political elites to score domestic points by trumpeting victory or ruing an allegedly unjust defeat. To protect room for peaceful negotiation, leaders must resist those urges.

China’s rivals will also be tempted to wave the decisive ruling at Beijing when tensions flare. That card will remain on the table, but it should be played sparingly. The positive potential of the decision lies in its capacity to align the incentives of the various claimants and facilitate more genuine multilateral talks on a thoroughly multilateral feud.

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