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China’s failure in the South China Sea

18 July 2016

By Orville Schell (via ChinaFile)

By rejecting the ruling of the arbitration tribunal in The Hague China has diminished the chances of resolving its regional maritime disputes in a peaceful manner. This essay was originally published by ChinaFile, the online magazine of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations.

A Chinese visitor looks at a map of the South China Sea at a national defence education center in Nanjing, Jiangsu province. Image by Imagine China

The recent Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague’s long-awaited ruling on conflicting Chinese and Filipino claims in the South China Sea has delivered a stunning rebuke to Beijing. By insinuating international law into what essentially had been a standoff, many hoped that the Court’s decision would provide an off-ramp for the disputants. But, far from accepting the Hague’s ruling as Indian Prime Minister Modi graciously had in 2014 after losing in a different UNCLOS arbitration with Bangladesh over the Bay of Bengal, Beijing rejected the court’s judgment out of hand and began lashing back defiantly against the Permanent Court of Arbitration, calling it a “puppet tribunal” and its decision a “farce directed by Washington” with no legal standing.

By reiterating its policy of “no acceptance, no participation, no recognition, and no implementation,” China has painted itself into a difficult corner and diminished the chances of resolving the myriad maritime disputes—involving Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and now even Indonesia as well as the Philippines—in a peaceful manner. What is more, by continuing to press its claims with such belligerence, Beijing also throws up a huge obstruction in the way of better U.S.-China relations. After all, the only force that stands between the weaker South East Asian countries and China is the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

What makes the Hague ruling so sensitive for China right now is not just the humiliating rebuke it gives to Beijing and President Xi Jinping, but the fact that it comes as one more in a string of already embarrassing, if largely unnoticed, other reverses that China has recently suffered in its relations with Asian countries. Together they form a striking tableau of foreign policy ineptitude, examples of China’s misreading the real balance of power and politics in the region and then acting either to propitiate nationalistic sentiment at home or to defend what Xi may imagine is part of a larger restoration of China to a position of greatness in Asia and the world.

However, if looked at from a somewhat different perspective, it is difficult to see how these serial setbacks have done anything but harm to China’s global standing, diminish its security, and undermine the long term interests of the Chinese people. Whereas only six or seven years ago China’s relations with almost all neighboring countries in Asia, particularly those in South East Asia, were quite good, now, as a result of these maritime disputes and other missteps, China cannot boast a single true ally, even obedient client state, in the region today.

A list of the recent reverses China has suffered includes:

The Philippines: Manila, a U.S. treaty ally, has not only just won a milestone international law case against Beijing, but also, because of China’s expansionism into Philippine claimed waters, U.S. forces, expelled from the Republic in the 1990s, have now been invited back into the country, reconsolidating the Philippine-U.S. alliance.

Vietnam: Because of an increasingly conflicted relationship with China over island claims in the South China Sea, Communist Party-ruled Vietnam has not only given rise to anti-Chinese riots, begun hosting a growing number of visits by the U.S. President, Secretary of State, and other officials; agreed to join the Trans Pacific Partnership; but also even begun discussing turning over old Vietnam War era naval bases to the U.S. Navy.

Japan: Although during the 1970s most WWII grievances were resolved so that a period of real Sino-Japanese amity ensued in the 1980s, in the past two decades Beijing has revived its dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands with Tokyo, another U.S. treaty ally. By harping again on the inadequacy of Tokyo’s apologies for wartime abuses, Beijing has increasingly strained relations between the world’s second and third largest economies and excited conservative anti-Chinese forces within Japan, recently helping Prime Minister Shinzo Abe win a sweeping electoral victory.

South Korea: It was not so many months ago that South Korea, also a U.S. treaty ally, found its President, Park Geun-hye, sitting on Tiananmen Gate making nice with Chinese President Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin in hopes of cementing better trade relations with China and winning President Xi’s support for more Chinese pressure on North Korea, or the DPRK. However, upon returning home, not only were there few signs of Chinese reciprocity, but when President Park called President Xi and did not get a response for a month, and when the DPRK began testing hydrogen weapons and long range missiles as China stood by, President Park not only turned to the United Nations for a stricter regimen of sanctions, but began pivoting back toward the U.S., even requesting, and getting (over strenuous Chinese objections), Washington’s agreement to provide the ROK with a THAAD missile defense system.

Myanmar: Once ruled by a military junta that made it a reliable authoritarian client state, in the last three years Myanmar not only has become an increasingly democratic country, but also has become more independent, more suspicious of China’s big power intentions and drifted closer to the U.S. orbit.

Taiwan: Once in an accomodationist mode of interaction under former President Ma Ying-jeou, the Taiwan presidency and legislature, captured in January by Tsai Ying-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)—a party long committed to independence—now puts this already insubordinate island into a heightened state of tension with China.

Indonesia: Long friendly to China, Indonesia’s recent disputes over fishing grounds within its Exclusive Economic Zone have introduced new animosities and conflict into its bi-lateral relations with Beijing.

Even though these reverses have largely been self-inflicted by China, if the past is any guide to the future, Beijing leaders once again will blame “hostile foreign forces,” just as the New China News Agency started to do when it called the recent international court ruling “a bundle of fairy rope the West has tossed out at a strategic moment in a vain attempt to terminate China’s development.”

Also militating against a Chinese course correction is the ever widening abyss between Xi Jinping’s florid rhetoric about the birth of a new New China that is wealthy, powerful, and invincible, and the actual reality of the world now arrayed around him. After extolling Mao Zedong and his socialist revolution in his recent speech commemorating the 95th Anniversary of the Party, President Xi launched into a peroration on his ambitions to “realize the China dream of bringing about a great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” However, he also pointedly reminded neighboring countries that, “Although China does not covet other countries’ rights and interests and is not jealous about other countries’ development, it definitely will not give up its own legitimate rights and interests… The Chinese people do not provoke matters, but are not afraid to confront provocations. No country should expect that we will trade away our own core interests. No country should expect that we will eat the bitter fruits of undermining our country’s sovereignty, security, and development interests.”

In such a grandiose notion of national revival, for a proud and thin-skinned leader like Xi there is no tolerance for the indignity of appearing weak. And so, while a Hague ruling may on the surface seem only to be about rocks, atolls, and shoals in the South China Sea, for Xi it is about dignity and face. And in his playbook of grand pretension, yielding to an international court in The Hague, in a case brought by the weakling Philippines, or anyone else for that matter, is unthinkable. As the phrase now found on billboards around China puts it, “When it comes to Chinese territory, not one inch will we yield.”

Xi is jousting in the international lists of greatness, and for him manifestations of vacillation or compromise, much less surrender, are intolerable signs of weakness. So, precisely because China has quietly endured a series of self-induced, although unwelcome, setbacks around its peripheries, Xi is all the more allergic to being tarred again with the big brush of failure, especially on such a grand and public stage as the South China Sea has now become. Thus, it will be more than a little surprising if Xi and China now somehow do the sensible thing by reversing rudders, prudently seeking compromise, and getting on with their far more important and already perilous task of economic reform and building better relations with their Pacific neighbors.

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The  Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS)is a Stiftung Mercatorinitiative. Established in 2013, MERICS is a Berlin-based institute for contemporary and practical research into China.

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