Now for the Hard Part: Converting Law into Order in the South China Sea

The Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam sails alongside the guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon​ in the South China Sea. Flickr/U.S. Navy

If China refuses to comply, the world must be ready.

Declaring the law is one thing, upholding it another thing altogether.

After Tuesday’s landmark ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration regarding the South China Sea, the gulf between China and the region has widened. China has busily staked out a position that will be hard to climb down from, while the United States and its allies and partners are hoping to elevate diplomacy backed by defense to help enforce a rules-based order. Whether polarization crowds out integration will hinge largely on responses undertaken by China, the United States and Southeast Asian claimant states in the coming weeks and months.

The South China Sea poses multiple challenges for China: domestically, as a sovereign interest; regionally, as an issue of relations with neighbors; and internationally, as a contest to displace American primacy. Geography, history, rapid military modernization, a centrally controlled narrative and enviable financial clout provide Beijing with several natural advantages.

Yet rather than marshalling these attributes toward soft power and a peaceful way forward, China has instead managed to upset just about every actor in and out of the region. For a nation that arguably invented strategy, China’s foreign policy can appear remarkably obtuse.

Nations locked in a spiraling competition seek advantage. They are said to “prep” the battlefield, playing for a favorable position should disagreement erupt into open conflict. Toward that end, since Manila filed its legal case in January 2013, China has systematically used both geopolitical hard power and geoeconomic stratagems to prepare for an unfavorable ruling. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague pulled no punches in handing down such a sharp and thorough rebuke of China’s position.

China has triply hurt its cause with its recent actions: first, by refusing to participate in a mandatory process as part of an international accord it voluntarily signed; second, by undertaking unprecedented unilateral changes, especially in the form of artificial island building; and third, in vilifying the ruling even before it was issued.

The impressive if counterproductive array of China’s actions taken since or just prior to the arbitral tribunal’s award could easily form the table of contents of a textbook on national-security gambits.

First, China has played the historical victim card. After more than a century of humiliation, during which it was forced to abide by unequal treaties and colonial powers that manhandled the Qing Dynasty, a rejuvenated China is finally ready to resume its rightful place atop the regional order. China is the “real victim,” argued a recent China Daily editorial. But this time Beijing will not play the “sick man of Asia.” The narrative of a victimized and oppressed China starts to wobble when you look at their contemporary behavior, including paving more than three thousand acres of the South China Sea in order to build up seven rocks or reefs into artificial islands with three military-grade runways among them.

Second, China continues to claim the United States seeks to contain its rise. Such a conspiracy would be very impressive, with U.S. influence reaching all five unanimous arbitral judges, the Philippines, most of Southeast Asia and broad swaths of the global community. Another prominent Chinese essay argues that America is behind a multifaceted conspiracy to create tension, divide the region, and encircle China. As apparent evidence of this caper was the “leak” that the ruling was due out on July 7, a ruse apparently designed to build tension before the real verdict was released on July 12. Such a conspiracy omits the multiple preceding predictions about the timing of the ruling.

Third, China repeatedly suggests war will result unless the United States and others back off. Because direct military confrontation with the United States is the last thing Beijing wants, most of these threats are muttered with sufficient strategic ambiguity. For instance, rather than mobilizing retired sailors for live-fire naval drills in the South Sea China as part of a concerted national response, instead the PLA Daily strained credulity by stating, “It is the common wish of many demobilized soldiers to return to the military in the context of a battle summons.”

Similarly, China was not entirely forthcoming in relating why it felt it necessary to conduct drills at the same time as PLA Navy participation in the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific biannual exercise. China announced joint military exercises with Russia would commence in the South China Sea the day prior to the ruling being issued. Explained a Chinese military expert, “the joint drills show that China also needs support and understanding from the international society in order to defend its just title and maintain regional stability.”

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