No one was surprised when the Hague tribunal delivered an unfavourable ruling for China regarding its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. The Hague tribunal declared that China’s claims to the South China Sea, based on rocky outcrops that are only exposed at low tide, were invalid, and that China were violating the Philippines’ sovereign rights by meddling in its waters. China, predictably, rejected the ruling. Xinhua, the Chinese state news broadcaster, announced that the “ill-founded ruling” was “null and void”.
China’s claims are certainly difficult to support. China claims that the South China Sea has for a long time been part of its maritime territory, stretching back to the days the great admiral Zheng He sailed through its seas to distant exotic lands. (The reality is much less ancient; Chiang Kai Shek, inspired by the Nazi concept of lebensraum– living space- drew the famous nine-dash line). And, questioned the Chinese government, what right did the nations of Southeast Asia have to claim the South China Sea? They had no more a legitimate argument, China argued, easily ignoring the fact that the Southeast Asian coast laid much closer to the Spratly islands than did the southernmost point of China. Forget the historical or geographical fantasy rationales; the fact that the South China Sea was a highly lucrative maritime silk road, richly endowed with resources, made it a tempting enough target for Chinese bullying.
It makes it easy, then, to view the Hague ruling as a victory for the many other countries that claim the South China Sea: Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines among them. Was this not a stern rebuke to Chinese delusions? Would this not put an end to the island building and other activities that the Chinese had conducted within the South China Sea?
An ideal world would see countries playing by the rules, respecting them and accepting the rulings of an objective court. Reality, of course, is hardly an ideal world, and so anyone who expected China to accept the rulings of the court and withdraw from the South China Sea would themselves be deluded. The ruling was intended to bring to a conclusion the conflict between China and her Southeast Asian neighbours. The problem, however, is that the ruling is hardly enforceable; no global policeman will be able to compel one of the world’s largest countries to obey the ruling of some court trying to stamp its authority from the Netherlands.
Therefore, what is more likely to happen is that this ruling will now escalate tensions between China and the Philippines. No more would anyone even pretend to be obligating to international law; it would now be a raw competition of power.
And it could hardly come at a worse time. China, with its slowing economic growth, has a government suffering from- although still muffled- possibly growing levels of dissent. This would not be a time when Xi Jinping will be in the mood to show weakness; rather, he would be more tempted to flaunt his strength at every turn, eager to appease the public nationalist mood. The Philippines, on the other hand, has just elected a new president: Rodrigo Duterte, also known by his not altogether very accurate nickname of ‘Trump of the East’, the former mayor of Davao who has promised to murder hundreds of thousands of criminals, referred to the Pope with unflattering terms and jokes easily about rape. Although Duterte displays a distinct disinterest in in most aspects of policy unrelated to combating crime and corruption, he has spoken forcefully before his elevation to the presidency about the need to stand up to China. It might require, he said, him to ride on a jet ski to confront the Chinese at sea. Since becoming the president, Duterte has walked back his rhetoric and seems more measured in his analysis of the situation; however, it is difficult to dismiss the possibility of an escalation of the tensions already present in the region by such a maverick leader.
It would be one thing if this were a mere regional conflict that could be confined to just the two neighbouring combatants. History, however, suggests otherwise. Such an escalation would, inevitably, bring back reminders of a conflict a century earlier in a different corner of the globe. In 1914, the assassination of an Austrian archduke in Serbia led to the most bloody war ever fought in history. With the South China Sea conflict, it would not be difficult to imagine a misstep blowing into similarly epic global proportions. The United States, the world’s foremost supervisor, has its navy operating in the area. A false move, and the situation could easily end up with China and the United States in a military conflict.
In the end, to interpret the tensions in the South China Sea merely as a neighbours’ spat would be to miss out on a much larger picture. It is a concrete expression of a great powers’ game. China is a rising power; of that there can be no doubt. Whether or not it will eclipse the United States as the most powerful nation in the world any time soon is still unclear, for China still grapples with a myriad of internal problems, from slowing economic growth to severe structural issues. However the Middle Kingdom, itself once the undeniable superpower of the Far East, is resentful of the Western international system that has prevailed since the Iron Curtain came down a few decades earlier. Why, after all, should what was once the celestial empire have to consent to rules that it did not write, to a world order it did not help create? This is the argument of Henry Kissinger, the man who helped Nixon open China. The United States still runs the world in a unipolar world. But to continue to do that in a world that is increasingly becoming more and more multipolar is an unsustainable equilibrium.
Unsurprising, then, that China would eventually try to turn the balance of power and stamp its authority, discontent with simple economic influence. That was not enough for a great power. By taking the South China Sea, and the immense economic advantages that come with it, China is trying to portray itself to a its neighbourhood as its undisputed hegemon. Its obstacle, of course, is the presence of the US. Barack Obama, anticipating the need to manage the rise of China, had years earlier announced the US’s “pivot to Asia” and renewed US attention to the Asia Pacific region. Of course, Obama ended up bogged down in a way he did not want to be in the Middle East, that perennial distractor of US presidents that sucked up much men, attention and treasure. It did not prevent the US from continuing to dispatch ships to annoy the Chinese, however. China resented US influence in its own backyard. The United States were an ocean away; they had plenty of places to meddle, so why interfere in China’s Asian affairs. The US, on the other hand, are understandably apprehensive about the intentions and influence of a power threatening to undermine its own. Better to try to manage it than to let things go wild.
All of which leads us to the present day. China and the Philippines, a US ally, remains at a standoff, neither willing to concede to the other control of a few barren rocks in the sea. The US, for its part, has been accused by the Chinese state media of world-class hypocrisy for urging all parties to observe the international ruling. The US itself rejected an international court of justice ruling in the 1980s and had used its seat in the UN Security Council to veto a motion urging her to observe it. The US, for its part, simultaneously insisted on staying in the South China Sea while urging everyone to be calm.
But it is a delicate act that the US is attempting; to manage a rising power without provoking it too much. Should it go wrong, the consequences would be disastrous. Power transition theory, proposed by A.F.K Organski and Douglas Lemke, showed that of the many power transitions that have taken place in the past five centuries, the result has often been war. Any furthering of tensions in the South China Sea is akin to fanning the flames of war.
Hyperbole, perhaps? Surely, some might suggest, that a war would no longer be conceivable in the modern era of such economic integration and globalisation. It must be pointed out, however, that many said the same in the prelude to the First World War, that such bloodletting on the scale of the Napoleonic wars would not happen again. Others would argue that the nuclear deterrent and the imminent risk of destroying the entirety of human civilisation would of course impede any rational person from escalating the conflict. We know from history, however, that leaders are not always rational and steady. The Philippines had just elected a questionable strongman as its leader. The United States itself is on the verge of doing the same in November. Who knows what Trump and his anti-China stances would do in the South China Sea?
Of course, it would still be a fools’ errand to try to make the case that the South China Sea could potentially lead to a world conflict. It may very well still be a little hyperbolic. But we should never underestimate the capability of the human mind to make myopic decisions. Both the current and next set leaders of the US may very well continue to fan the flames of confrontation without realising what result may wait. And that would, needless to say, be disastrous indeed.