Will Beijing’s anger create a ‘cradle of war’ in the South China Sea?

The aircraft carrier, USS John C. Stennis, which US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited as it was ploughing through the South China Sea. US Navy

By Claire Heffron

Is this the start of ‘Chexit’, a China that sullenly begins to exit from globalization? Can an angry Beijing quit the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas  (UNCLOS) that it ratified in June 1996? China refused to recognize last week’s ruling by an arbitration court in The Hague nullifying its massive claims in the South China Sea (SCS) and did not take part in the proceedings brought by the Philippines. Neighboring nations are saying China will do absolutely nothing.  Since they didn’t recognise the trial, it will act the same as if it didn’t happen.

Beijing irritated

China is reacting angrily to calls by Western countries and Japan for the decision to be adhered to. From as high as President Xi Jinping the mood has been one of unconcealed defiance and a self-indulgent rejection of the international court.

The Chinese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin mentioned the likelihood that the SCS might turn out to be a ‘cradle of war’. The main message is that China can take recourse to military and suggests that, if needed, defend its territorial claims although they have been completely shunned by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. In a sign of the level of anger in Beijing over the ruling, Liu criticized the integrity of the court’s judges, and stated that monetary inducement had led to the final verdict against China.  Liu said, “These judges are rewarded, therefore who is responsible for this tribunal? Who paid them? Was it the Philippines or another country?”

It seems that there’s simmering anger happening in Beijing over the SCS, whereby the hardliners are urging President Xi to be strong and add pressure by asserting an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) and completing high visibility military manoeuvres. On the opposite side, regional military service exercises have seen the Philippines participating with Japan, apparently in counter-piracy ops however the signalling is full off high-octane pressure.

Coming to Terms with the Truth

The less visible body in Beijing, the one that favours a return to a peaceful and happy China, has long sought an external policy that is more versatile. We can see a division in another statement from Liu who said in regard of the ADIZ, “On whether or not China can start an air defence zone over the South China Sea, what we’ve got to make clear is that China has the right to… it depends on the level of pressure we can endure.”

Having reiterated China’s ‘right’ the vice-minister said, “We hope that alternative countries don’t use this chance to threaten China, and hope that different countries will push with China, meet [the] U.S. halfway, and maintain the South China Sea’s peace and stability and not turn [it] into a supply of war.”
Is this a sovereignty issue?

China’s response was telegraphed well ahead of the ruling itself by well-known figures like Yan Xuetong, but was not as it is sometimes described outside the region. According to Mr. Yan, China’s actions are always thought to be moral, because they reflect the proper “order” of international classification. Anyone failing to recognize this pecking order is in the wrong.

Dr. Ian Storey, a Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) Singapore said the ruling is a devastating legal blow to China’s legal claims.

“The problem is that China, which is a signatory of UNCLOS (the United States is not), openly and repeatedly rejected as illegitimate an institutional mechanism that multiple Party Congresses had tentatively affirmed prior to 2012. It would be superficial to suggest that China was flaunting international law, its challenge is far deeper: legal scholars of the Law of the Sea face a challenge to the essential ambiguities and lack of enforcement mechanisms built into treaty itself”.

Dr Storey believes the ruling is unmistakeable. “Sovereignty itself is the root of the matter, but on vivid display is the relative political failure of the concept itself to deal with modern confrontations.  The ruling itself is unambiguous: the historically reinvented Nine-Dash Line (it once had 11) does not, according to the panel, bear the historical scrutiny of 20th-century diplomacy, let alone its antecedents.  However, in a world in which states announce in advance their refusal of a ruling before it exists, we face an escalating tenuous international legal system”.

The mood is conciliatory and the possibility of dialogue may be seen as an option by ASEAN and China. Beijing could take offence at the difficulty being raised by the international community that are perceived as a loss of face for President Xi, and hence, the future meetings will be informative regarding how a post-Hague China relates to the larger international harmony.”