Pivot to the Hague
U.S. Not Neutral on Adjudication of S. China Sea Claims

In a move likely to draw cheers from Manila, the U.S. has firmly stated its support for international adjudication of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. The Philippines has long advocated for such adjudication, arguing that China’s size and power would make any “bilateral negotiations” (China’s preferred option) a fait accompli. So in the fight over the fight over Asia’s coastal waters, the Philippines has just gained “Washington’s top diplomat for East Asia”, Daniel Russel, as an ally, according to the Diplomat:

The United States has repeatedly said that while it takes no position on competing sovereignty claims over disputed land features in the South China Sea, it does want these maritime claims to be advanced in accordance with international law and without the use of coercion. […]

…in response to a question by a Chinese participant on perceived U.S. ‘neutrality’ in the South China Sea, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel firmly clarified at a think tank conference in Washington, D.C. that this neutrality only extended to the competing claims, rather than the way in which the disputes were resolved.

“We are not neutral when it comes to adhering to international law. We will come down forcefully when it comes to following the rules,” Russel said during a keynote speech delivered at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. […]

“It’s really not about the rocks and the shoals. It’s about rules. It’s about the kind of neighborhood we all want to live in,” he said.

China knows perfectly well it’s acting illegally and any decision is virtually certain to rule against its expansionist ambitions (a quick glance at a map including the Scarborough Shoal will show why Manila thinks it would win its day in court). That’s why, although it is a signatory of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which explicitly outlaws China’s actions, Beijing has said it will not recognize the legitimacy of any decision the court makes. It has refused even to show up for the hearings.

The U.S. has every reason to hope for a legal resolution. With tensions in the region already red hot due to a war of words between Japan and China, international arbitration is clearly an attractive option. But even with the U.S. pushing for it and Manila pressing its case, Beijing is not likely to succumb to the pressure to respect any law it doesn’t like. The differences of opinion between China and its neighbors about territorial matters are irreconcilable and international law has never shown itself to be particularly useful at stopping geopolitical problems from snowballing.

We’re reminded of the great quote from E.H. Carr, reflecting on the failure of the League of Nations to stop history from repeating itself in Europe. He observed that “the metaphysicians of Geneva found it difficult to believe that an accumulation of ingenious texts prohibiting war was not a barrier against war itself.” Any attempt to manage tensions in the region is unlikely to hinge on The Hague.

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