The South China Sea And the World Order: The Chinese Response Will Tell Us A Lot About the 21st Century


I don’t need to explain any of this, do I? Image from Foreign Policy

Here at Shooting Irrelevance, we’re mostly concerned with the growing contours of a post-state world, if not a de jure one, then at least a de facto, as the system is pulled apart by dislocation and globalization. That said, we’re not there yet, and in many ways are still a long way from it. There are a few countries who can still impose their will on the world, for better and for worse, and to varying degrees of efficiency. The US is the main one; Russia, for all its cracks, is another (though I think the impositions are largely just to paper over those fissures).  And then there is China, who is seeking to reshape Asia and global trade to its benefit.

China received an expected blow today from the International Court of Arbitration in the Hague, which ruled that it did not have the right to shipping lanes in the South China Sea. Based on dubious ownership claims of atolls and sun-bleached lifeless rocks around the Philippines, China has claimed historic right to them for their navy and fishing vessels, blocking Philippine ships and obstructing trade. The decision, which is binding (both countries are signatories to its statute) said that China didn’t really have a historic claim to the Philippines, and should back off.

This is important. In addition to saying that little rocks give them sovereignty and historic claim, China had been building little islands and claiming that they had the right to own territory within a 200-mile radius, as the Law of the Sea dictates. Obviously, that was a clever way to gobble up territory and to control some of the world’s most important shipping lanes. They have done the same in the East China Sea, as part of a very long-standing plan to control the waters around them. In building massive ports throughout the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, China is looking to create a trade-based maritime empire backed by a growing navy.

So now we have an international tribunal saying that China needs to slow down, at least in one crucial area. Needless to say, the official Chinese response is that this is unfair, the court is wrong, they are biased, etc. The question is what their official response will be. It’s neighbors, especially Japan, are worried. The Guardian captures a slightly contradictory response.

The Communist party mouthpiece newspaper the People’s Daily said in an editorial that the tribunal had ignored “basic truths” and “tramped” on international laws and norms. “The Chinese government and the Chinese people firmly oppose [the ruling] and will neither acknowledge it nor accept it,” it added.

Speaking to reporters Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, said: “Chinese people will not accept the result and all people around the world who uphold justice will not accept the result.”

“Now the farce is over it is time to get back to the right track,” Wang added, hinting that Beijing would now be willing to enter into negotiations with the Philippines “over the South China Sea issue”.

This strikes me as sort of important. The Court didn’t rule that the Chinese had no right to fish there; just that they had no historic claim of domination. So it appears to be a hinge moment for China’s 21st-century idea of power: do they use their vast economic might to enter into what could be very fruitful negotiations with a country clearly within their sphere of influence? Or do they ignore the ruling, and carry on, confident that the US will not interfere too much, being unwilling to risk war with one of its most important trading partners.

There is a lot to parse out here, and I am not really the man to do it. China, in terms of trade, needs us to a mutually-dependent degree. Their Navy, while growing more powerful, would still be completely outgunned in a war with the US. It’s a situation no one wants. What I’m interested in is how China decides to act in the 21st-century, a century which they seem to believe, understandably, is theirs, and it is not a coincidence that the Phillippines are a flashpoint. If I were China, the statement by John McCain and Dan Sulllivan this morning would be particularly enraging. They are excited and particularly chest-thumpy.

“With today’s award, China faces a choice. China can choose to be guided by international law, institutions, and norms. Or it can choose to reject them and pursue the path of intimidation and coercion. Too often in recent years, China has chosen the latter. The world will be watching to see the choice China makes.

“The United States must continue to be clear and consistent in its policy to oppose unilateral actions by any claimant seeking to change the status quo in the South China Sea through the use of coercion, intimidation, unilateral declarations or military force; prevent any other country from exercising its rights to the resources of the exclusive economic zone; engage in any reclamation activities in the South China Sea; or militarize any reclaimed features.

“In light of the findings of this ruling, we expect that the United States military will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as we have done in the Western Pacific for more than a century.

This is rich, of course. How dare China attempt a pseudo-colonization of the Phillippines in disaccord with international law. It’s been ours fair and square for over 100 years, when we took it over and brutalized it after beating the Spanish in a phony war! What right do they have?

Honestly, John McCain talking about how China has to be guided by “international law, institutions, and norms” is rich enough, but especially when talking about the Chinese not using unilateral action in the South China Sea. After all, US colonization of the Phillippines is essentially what made us a global empire, and set the stage for our “winning” of the 20th-century. This supercilious tongue-clucking when someone is trying to do the same thing at the dawn of the 21st must be maddening.

And that’s why I think this is an important moment. Does China continue to seethe under the anti-colonialist lectures of the US, listening to us say that the Phillippines have the only right to control their sea lanes, which are actually controlled by us? Do they use more negotiations to try to make the balance more equitable? Or do they now risk a confrontation, hoping a distracted and divided America might back off?

I don’t have an answer, but I do feel like the time when China is forced to put up with US hypocrisy in the region is coming to an end. I don’t say that this is a good thing; the world won’t be better off with Chinese dominance. I also think outright war is, thankfully, a very very small possibility. It’s just clear to see that the 20th century is clearly and finally coming to a close. What happens next will help to determine how the 21st one goes.





One thought on “The South China Sea And the World Order: The Chinese Response Will Tell Us A Lot About the 21st Century

  1. Pingback: A Brief List Of What I Didn’t Hear On National Security Night | Shooting Irrelevance

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