On July 12 an international tribunal in The Hague sided with the Philippines and essentially undercut the entire basis for China’s claim that it owns most of the waters in the South China Sea. Beijing rejected the court’s jurisdiction and legitimacy months before the decision was even made, but that does not matter to U.S. policy. For this tribunal ruling is just one piece of a larger strategy the United States must pursue to discourage China from using its sheer heft to coerce smaller states in Asia and reorder international relations in that part of the world to the disadvantage of American and its allies.
China’s President Xi Jinping and a number of Western scholars have warned that resisting Beijing’s assertion of control over the South China Sea increases the dangers of the “Thucydides Trap” which posits that rising powers and status quo powers inevitably go to war. The only way to avoid that trap, they say, is for the United States to accommodate China and accept what Xi calls a “New Model of Great Power Relations” in which Washington and Beijing would determine the future of Asia on an equal basis without America’s allies and partners spoiling the two major powers’ happy condominium.
With its lopsided victory at The Hague this week, the Philippines played the spoiler brilliantly. Manila asked not for a ruling on the sovereignty of the disputed features, but only on the legitimacy of China’s arguments under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the legality of China’s forced expulsion of Philippine fishermen from their historic fishing grounds. The court sided with Manila on every point—a reminder that accepting China’s domination of the South China Sea because of Chinese power rather than rule of law would only increase the likelihood that Beijing will continue choosing coercion over diplomacy and rule of law in the future. Though focused on technicalities, the Tribunal spotlighted the much larger question of how the international community should expect China to behave towards smaller states as it amasses power.
Strong supporting statements for the decision from all the G-7 powers will give pause to China’s leaders. Xi is set to host the G-20 Leaders Summit in Beijing in early September and cannot risk being isolated at his own event. What happens after that is now the subject of considerable speculation, but those on the front line of maritime disputes with China expect Beijing will begin firing back to demonstrate that the Tribunal is a paper tiger. Beijing could declare an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the South China Sea or reclaim more land and build a new military runway on the Scarborough Shoal near the Philippines to complete PLA fighter coverage over the South China Sea. Even without such blatant escalation, China will likely continue militarizing the airbases it built this past year. These airbases are an overwhelming threat to weaker powers like the Philippines and a significant complication even for U.S. military operations.
China’s setback at The Hague will provide a headwind, in short, but hardly enough in itself to curb China’s determination to assert its position in the South China Sea or the potential for further escalation. The United States will therefore also need to demonstrate that Beijing will pay a significant price geopolitically if China continues using coercive tools to force smaller states to accept Chinese claims.
To begin with, the United States and other leading allies will have to help front-line states like the Philippines or Vietnam with basic capabilities to monitor and at least minimally deter violations of their own territorial waters. The U.S. Navy will also have to conduct more regular Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) to demonstrate that Chinese actions will change neither the legal status of the South China Sea nor U.S. willingness to maintain open sea lanes there as it has since 1945. Finally, the United States must demonstrate to Beijing that Chinese actions risk turning America’s network of bilateral alliances in the Pacific into something closer to the collective security arrangement that characterizes NATO. The U.S. could reinforce this warning through increased exercises among the American, Australian, Japanese, and other navies in the region.
The Pentagon and the U.S. Pacific Command have begun initiating some of these policies, and President Obama appears to have issued a stern warning directly to Xi, but the Administration is starting from a deficit in terms of how the region reads U.S. intentions and willpower. Too often in recent years the White House has micromanaged and limited FONOPs while expressing readiness to embrace Xi’s “New Model of Great Power Relations” in order to further bilateral cooperation with Beijing on issues such as climate change.
The United States should seek a win-win positive context for the larger U.S.-China relationship wherever possible. However, if the United States wants to maintain an open and rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific, then there is very little room for accepting Beijing’s drive to secure its maritime claims through strength and coercion. This Administration and the next should be prepared for a longer-term test of willpower and diplomacy. There will be no quick fix, but somewhere down the road this week’s decision in The Hague will likely be seen as a necessary stepping stone toward the establishment of a more stable equilibrium in the South China Sea and U.S.-China relations overall.