Judgement Day for the South China Sea (And China): What happens now?
Today was a day that I never thought I would see—the issue of issues when it comes to Asia, the always potentially explosive South China Sea, was trending on Twitter this morning at roughly 5am EST, and I was actually awake with coffee in hand to witness this historic event. That can only mean one thing–Judgement Day in “Asia’s Cauldron” has arrived.
And when it comes to China’s expansive claims in this vital body of water—claims so outrageous and based on the most dubious of evidence and more on Beijing’s island-building binge to change the status-quo—Beijing seems to be in quite the predicament.
To put it bluntly: It lost, and lost quite badly.
The ruling itself handed down by The Hague, expansive in its scope as well as peppered with a level of detail that will keep international law experts without sleep for days (as of this writing it was down most likely due to hot demand) is quite clear—China’s so-called historic claims in which it bases its legal foundations on its nine-dash-line have been invalidated, and that is very much a big deal.
But the $5.3 trillion question—the amount of seaborne trade that passes through the South China Sea—is this: what does this all mean and how will China and other nations that also have claims respond?
China lost perception battle
Sometimes simplicity is the best guide when we seek to react and respond to such a historic moment. And this really is quite simple to understand if we move past the “legalize” of the decision and base our analysis in the perception of how this will be looked at by the broader international community.
The ruling in China vs. the Philippines is a big win for those who believe that no rising power, no nation that feels the status quo does not benefit them, can change maps or claim oceans or seas as territory—something not done in hundreds of years.
It is a win for nations who believe the status-quo in the Asia-Pacific, something that has brought peace and prosperity to the wider region, should be maintained. And no amount of fake islands, no amount of missiles, or weapons, or super-advanced fighter aircraft can change these facts.
China has lost the perception battle, the battle for minds when it comes to this issue by judging the reaction to the ruling on social media and in the wider press. It now stands shamed in the court of public opinion.
And while obviously this is a big win for Manila, it is also a win for nations who do not have the power to push back against China, and this presents a possible pathway for countries like Vietnam to sue Beijing in international bodies—to essentially shame China into halting any further attempts to change the status-quo, if Beijing does not accept the decision. Nations who do not have the means to deter China’s aggressive actions have been given a powerful tool to effectively place roadblocks and ensure at least a reputational price will be paid for their actions—something vital to the whole Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific community. It is a tool that could become quite powerful in the months and years to come. Small nations like Vietnam facing Chinese aggression might have found David’s slingshot.
How China will react will also be key. Look for Beijing to come out with many different types of strong statements, but it will take the next few days to the study the ruling intently, so there will not be an immediate action. But let there be no doubt, it will then respond in some way—and this could take many, many different pathways. Whether that is through massive military maneuvers, an Air Defense Identification Zone, further militarizing the South China Sea, or even going to the most extreme measure—turning the Scarborough Shoal into a military base.
Let us however hope China, after several days of reflection, quietly works towards a compromise solution that all nations of the South China Sea can accept. But unfortunately Beijing’s track record does not exactly inspire much confidence.
Harry J. Kazianis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest and a Senior Editor for The National Interest Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter: @Grecianformula. The ideas expressed are his own.