As expected, an international tribunal has ruled for the Philippines and against China in its claim to have historic rights to 90 percent of the South China Sea, where territory disputes with a number of nations — including Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan — threaten to trigger military action and jeopardize the more than $5 trillion in trade that traverses those waters each year. And, as promised, China has disavowed the decision, asserting that the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, Netherlands, has no authority here.
Indeed, there is no mechanism to enforce the unanimous ruling, which was handed down Tuesday. And Beijing is hardly alone in its rejection of the tribunal's decisions; the U.S. and the U.K. have also questioned PCA's jurisdiction. So Beijing, then, is largely just acting like the superpower it believes it's destined to be.
Still, officials there undoubtedly view the tribunal's finding as a slap in the face, and just how the rising power handles it is likely to set the tone for its relationships with the wider world for decades to come — particularly the United States. America has an immediate interest in preserving freedom of navigation and commercial shipping in the area along with maritime security, but also communication and cooperation with China on a number of longer-term fronts, including combating climate change, terrorism and nuclear threats.
Already, the United States has strained relations with China by conducting multiple freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea, to test the waters so the speak, and recently the U.S. Navy sent destroyers to patrol the area. China views such U.S. involvement as meddlesome and further evidence of our desire to be the world's police. Going forward, the United States should avoid strong arm tactics regarding the ruling for as long as possible, and allow China room to make a sober decision on its next steps. That doesn't mean, of course, that we and others shouldn't be prepared to take action through economic sanctions or other means if necessary.
Meanwhile, the other interested nations should ramp up the pressure on China, filing similar cases against it and asserting their own rights, regardless of the PCA's effectiveness. And China should stop digging in its heels and make a good faith effort at negotiation with the Philippines. That's the tactic the United States turned to in 1980 after the international court ruled against it in a case brought by Nicaragua. And the U.K. has more recently expressed a willingness to negotiate following a similar scenario involving Mauritius. Such a move would signal to the rest of the world that China's brand of Communism differs from Russia's and diplomacy is achievable.
The Philippines filed its case with the PCA in January 2013, after China forcibly seized control of Scarborough Shoal, about 140 miles off the coast of Manila. China refused to participate in the proceedings and claimed its sovereignty over the majority of the South China Sea — noted by a U-shaped "nine-dash line" on centuries-old maps — goes back to ancient times, when it discovered and developed various islands. In the last few years, China has laid claim to certain land masses there and built them up to accommodate air bases, and radar and military equipment.
The PCA found that in so doing, China not only violated the Philippine's sovereign rights — by interfering with "fishing and petroleum exploration" and "constructing artificial islands" in the area — but that it also tragically caused "permanent irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem" there. It also said there was no basis to claim historic rights.
"Although Chinese navigators and fishermen [had] historically made use of the islands in the South China Sea, there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources," PCA said.
China's immediate response to the findings was to double down on its stance, and officials have been holding out the threat of military maneuvers for months. In the long run though, the country and world would be better off if China took this chance to show it can indeed be a good global neighbor — and leader.