3 Myths About China and the South Sea Tribunal Verdict

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George Washington is underway in the South China Sea​. Flickr/Official U.S. Navy

The DC echo chamber must accept that China is emulating U.S. behavior.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague issued its award on Tuesday in the case Philippines v. China. The tribunal ruled entirely in the Philippines’ favor. Ecstatic Washington, DC foreign-policy elites have since done nothing but revel. But their three most frequent claims—that China should submit to the decision, that the United States should pressure China to do so, and that by rejecting international law China is threatening international order—do not hold water. Instead, the United States has the China it deserves. Read on to exit their echo chamber.

Does China Have Any Way to Gracefully Submit to the Decision?

According to Sen. Marco Rubio’s post-ruling press release, “Beijing faces a choice: accept the tribunal’s ruling or through its response, rally the entire region against its provocative actions.” Is this actually China’s choice?

No. Accepting the ruling is not even an option for China, because to do so would surrender its claim to be a great power. Great powers don’t recognize the jurisdiction of others in respect to their vital interests. They don’t ask for permission to ensure their security. And they don’t surrender their basic territorial claims in response to being rapped on the shoulder.

Furthermore, accepting the ruling would create a precedent whereby any state in a dispute with China could internationalize the disagreement to get its way. There is already talk of Vietnam following in the Philippines’ footsteps; a favorable ruling in such a second case could essentially lock China out of the South China Sea in terms of resource exploitation and maritime administration.

Finally, there’s the issue of domestic legitimacy for both President Xi and the Chinese leadership. Backing down after so explicitly rejecting the tribunal’s jurisdiction would cause President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party to lose face. Chinese nationalists, who are already being censored en masse on Weibo, would be outraged, and the party would diminish its legitimacy in the eyes of the nation. This would be seen as a national humiliation: the same sort of humiliation that led to revolution in China just over a century ago.

Would “Stiffer” American Resolve Make China Comply with the Ruling?

According to Gordon Chang (of Perpetually-Coming-Collapse-of-China fame) China has violated international law because in the past “countries shied away from holding China accountable.” The solution is obvious: with “extraordinary economic pressure” “impose costs” and shun China. That is the best that can be done in the short term. In the long term, he says, we need to have “a conversation” about more serious measures.

By getting tough with China most analysts mean something along the lines of Michael Mazza’s recent proposal: strengthening America’s forward posture by basing Navy and Air Force assets at Philippine and Vietnamese ports and bases in addition to those already in Singapore, Japan and South Korea. Mazza imagines a future in which there is a “persistent American military presence at the eastern, southern and western points of the compass” in the South China Sea, restricting China to the shallow northern bits. This is in addition, of course, to the host of other proposals for more freedom of navigation operations, increased reconnaissance flights off Hainan Island, bigger arms sales to any state that will oppose China, more “lawfare,” amped-up anti-China rhetoric, increased economic relations with anyone but China and sanctions on certain Chinese industries. Would getting tough with China force it to comply?

No. Intense U.S. pressure is not going to force China to fold and go home. It is likely to do the opposite: to lead to a regional escalation. What would this look like? We have dealt with this question in more detail elsewhere, but heightened tensions would likely result in intensified nationalism that would undermine regional harmony, an increasing risk for inadvertent conflict in the South China Sea, the jeopardization of a potential Philippines-China bilateral agreement and, contrary to Mazza’s expectations, the further division of the region’s states, particularly Taiwan, which supports China’s claims.