The Fog of Law: China's Great South China Sea Dilemma

December 19, 2014 Topic: South China SeaDefenseLaw Region: ChinaPhilippines

The Fog of Law: China's Great South China Sea Dilemma

Lawfare is in full swing in the South China Sea. How will China respond to an unfavorable legal ruling? 

Nonetheless, China felt it was necessary to also rebut and reject Vietnam’s pronouncements on the issue. As a full-fledged member of the international community, Beijing is intent on countering any suggestion that it has acted outside the parameters of international law and norms. China is among those select countries that have seating judges in both the International Court of Justice (Xue Hanqin) and International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (Zhiguo Gao). But it is far from clear whether China’s leadership is willing to risk a domestic nationalist backlash and roll back its strategic maneuvers in the South China Sea in order to avoid an embarrassing legal outcome. It is quite possible that China will respond to any unfavorable legal adjudication by further hardening its position: consolidating its claims on the ground, launching a PR blitzkrieg against the Arbitral Tribunal and the Philippines and resorting to sanctions and other diplomatic measures to punish and isolate Manila. In the end, any legal arbitration might simply exacerbate the ongoing disputes, undermining prospects for much-needed bilateral engagement among disputing parties, especially between the Philippines and China.


Richard Javad Heydarian is an Assistant Professor in international affairs and political science at De La Salle University, and a policy advisor at the Philippine House of Representatives. He is the author of How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings (Zed, London), and the forthcoming book The Philippines: The US, China, and the Struggle for Asia’s Pivot State (Zed, 2015). You can follow him on Twitter:@Richeydarian.

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