Dispatch

China Doesn’t Care About What Some Dutch Court Thinks about the South China Sea

And veiled threats from the U.S. Secretary of Defense clearly don’t scare it, either.

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SINGAPORE — If you wanted a taste of rising tensions between the United States and China, the stern rebuke delivered this weekend by Adm. Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of general staff of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s military — the People’s Liberation Army — was a good place to start.

Dressed in a spotless white uniform, his voice often rising sharply as he spoke, Sun delivered a tough-worded set of remarks on the final day of the Shangri-La Dialogue, a major Asia-focused security summit hosted each year in Singapore. The meat of his comments focused on a much-watched forthcoming ruling — from an otherwise obscure international court based in The Hague, known as the Permanent Court of Arbitration — concerning his nation’s expanding military claims in the South China Sea.

“On the one hand, we have noticed that some countries apply international laws only when it is convenient. On the other hand, they support allies confronting China,” Sun told a hall packed with defense ministers, military figures, and other security analysts. The United States was guilty of “militarizing” the region, he added. “China firmly opposes such behavior…. We do not make trouble, but we have no fear of trouble.”

The subject of Sun’s ire was no accident. In as soon as the next few weeks, the Netherlands-based tribunal will rule on a case brought against China by the Philippines, one of four nations — alongside Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam — waging a kind of proxy conflict with their larger neighbor over maritime claims in nearby waters. The details are complex, but relate to the legality of China’s so-called nine-dash line, by which Beijing claims the majority of the South China Sea as its own, and which the Philippines disputes. The ruling is widely viewed as a major test case for the ability of the United States and its allies to defend what they describe as “rules-based” order in the Asia-Pacific.

Most observers expect China to lose the case, filed by the Philippines in 2013. Whatever the outcome, however, Sun this weekend said Beijing would “not recognize or honor” the ruling, reiterating previous Chinese arguments that the court has no jurisdiction.

Behind the spat, however, lie broader worries about an escalation of stress around the South China Sea, against a backdrop of what many in the region view as China’s increasingly aggressive moves to construct military facilities on small islands, whose ownership is often disputed with neighbors. This in turn leaves the United States in a bind, and one that provides a taste of the dilemmas it is now likely to face more frequently in China’s own backyard.

On the one hand, if there are no real consequences for China’s decision to ignore an international ruling, it makes Western talk of a rules-based order seem hollow and undermines the U.S. “pivot” to Asia undertaken since 2011. On the other, if Washington tries to find ways to punish Beijing for noncompliance — for instance, by increasing its military presence in the region, or, more improbably, by trying to economically sanction China — it risks inflaming regional tensions, alienating allies, and allowing China to paint it as an aggressor.

So far, the United States has mostly taken the latter approach, but there are signs that Washington’s patience is wearing thin. In his remarks on the opening day of Shangri-La on June 4, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter described the forthcoming ruling as “an opportunity for China” to sign up to a “principled regional order.” If it did not, however, he said China risked alienating its neighbors by “erecting a Great Wall of self-isolation.”

As Sun’s remarks the next day made clear, the question now is what happens when China does indeed ignore the ruling. One possible answer is “not much,” beyond perfunctory statements of condemnation from the Philippines, the United States, and its closest allies. Washington is likely to try and cajole the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), an important regional body, to make a joint statement along the same lines — although few analysts believe ASEAN will be able to do so, largely because so many of its members fear annoying China.

Instead, the real risk may be that China feels the need to prove that it will not be constrained by the ruling, pushing it to escalate its maritime activities.

One scenario posed to Carter during this weekend’s conference by Bonnie Glaser, a longtime China-watcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, was that China could expand its island-building activity to include Scarborough Shoal, a disputed reef claimed variously by China, Taiwan, and the Philippines, and which lies roughly 125 miles from a U.S. naval base in the Philippines. “Any action of that sort would be provocative and destabilizing, and for China, self-isolating,” Carter replied. It would come with consequences too, he added — although without hinting at what these might be.

In private, most U.S. allies in the region want a tougher stance, and have supported Washington’s recent turn toward shows of strength, which have involved sailing ships close to structures built on islands claimed by China. But these allies are often unwilling to forcefully say so in public — and, fearing Chinese repercussions, are certainly not willing to risk military operations of their own.

All this raises alarm about a feeble response to the Philippines ruling. “Nothing really suggests the United States is contemplating anything more substantial than they are already doing,” said Peter Jennings, a delegate at Shangri-La and executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank. “The cupboard is somewhat bare when it comes to the U.S. thinking on what it can do to stop further construction or militarization.”

Hopes that rising tensions between the two nations might be defused also look unlikely. Adam Ward of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the U.K.-based think tank that hosts the Shangri-La gathering, notes that both Washington and Beijing are backing themselves into corners by basing their positions on unbending principles. China says its claim rests on inviolable national sovereignty. The United States points to the fundamental right of freedom of navigation for itself and its allies, or, as Carter put it, the ability “to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.”

Such things make compromise difficult, a fact that the state of domestic politics in both countries hardly helps. The administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping has struck an increasingly nationalistic tone of late, making accommodation with regional rivals tricky. Meanwhile, whatever the result of this year’s U.S. presidential election, heightened tensions are likely: Donald Trump has promised a de facto trade war with China, while most analysts nonetheless expect Hillary Clinton to take a harder line with Beijing than Barack Obama.

The Philippines ruling therefore marks the latest in what are likely to be increasingly frequent skirmishes, leading to more strained relations between the world’s two largest military powers. Those who fear trouble between the United States and China, unlike Sun, probably won’t have long to wait.

Image Credit: ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images

James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore and the author of The Billionaire Raj. Follow him on Twitter: @jamescrabtree.

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