The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague recently ruled in favor of the Philippines in its case against China regarding conflicting South China Sea claims. However, the overall verdict will have little weight in Chinese consideration of its next possible steps.
Among the Court’s findings were that China’s “historical” claims to the area have no basis in the contemporary era. The Court also cited UNCLOS in its decision not to classify disputed possessions in the area as legitimate islands. As a result, they are not entitled to a two-hundred nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). This was a clear goal of Beijing’s as it sought to limit the U.S.’ freedom of military navigation within the area.
Additional findings concluded that China did indeed interfere with sovereign Filipino rights, such as harassment of Filipino fishermen and unsafe navigational practices. Damage to the local environment was also cited as China has continued with its artificial “island” construction. Summarily, it would appear that China was found guilty of infringing upon its neighbor’s sovereignty, even while simultaneously claiming that the U.S. is trying to infringe upon Chinese sovereignty.
As China’s Ambassador to the U.S. made clear yesterday, the ruling has the potential to actually harm future negotiations between China and the Philippines. The previous argument that China does not consider the topic subject to international jurisdiction was reiterated. However, it was buttressed by the claim that the U.S., through its support of The Philippines in the case, has sullied the legal process.
The Ambassador inferred that China may have been more receptive to the Court’s ruling if it was not so obviously part of the U.S.’ “re-balance” efforts. In other words, an impartial legal process was tainted by a very partial U.S. strategic objective in the area. Additionally, the claim is made by China that the U.S. has no true standing in the case.
This is because the U.S. is not only not a party to any of the South China Sea disputes, but it has not even ratified UNCLOS itself. Lastly, U.S. cognitive dissonance is clearly present as it officially claims neutrality in the various disputes, while also unambiguously supporting its ally in this particular case. These factors combine to make the recent judgment even more unpalatable to China.
However, the real issue is not one of sovereignty, but rather suzerainty. As a great power, China feels that it is entitled to its own sphere of influence in the South China Sea. Accordingly, regional, smaller powers must defer to Chinese preferences with respect to their own individual foreign policies. This thinking has precedence, ranging from “Finlandization” during the Cold War, to U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere today.
China’s real objection, however, comes from the perception that the U.S. considers the entire planet to be within its sphere of influence. The U.S. arrogates this right to itself while denying it to others, whether China in Southeast and Northeast Asia, or Russia in Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Black Sea, and the Baltic Sea. That is why China continually stresses the difference between commercial and military freedom of navigation, typified by the U.S.’ freedom of navigation (FONOP) maneuvers.
With respect to spheres of influence, an exemption may be granted by the U.S. to a regional power, but only if it serves U.S. objectives. Today, this situation most clearly describes India, as the U.S. apparently has no conflict with India carving out its own sphere of influence. This arc ranges from the Gulf States, East Africa, the Indian Ocean, to the South China Sea. China argues that this is so only because the U.S. belatedly realizes it needs India in order to effectively contain China itself.
Some U.S. advisors advocate a “lawfare” approach to China, which would entail curbing Chinese power through legal means such as the recent ruling. However, this U.S. tactic is severely weakened as the U.S. itself has had its own issues with the International Criminal Court.
Additionally, the U.S. famously withdrew from the International Court of Justice when the Court rejected the U.S. view that its mining of Nicaraguan harbors in the 1980s fell outside of the Court’s purview. Summarily, China is subtly arguing that when it comes to defending its regional core interests, it will act like the great power it is and adopt the “might is right” mindset espoused by its U.S. interlocutors both in the present and in the recent past.