China Defiant in Wake of Int'l Ruling on South China Sea

On the 12th of this month, an arbitral panel in The Hague rendered its award in the landmark case of Philippines vs. China. The decision, interpreting the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, was a sweeping rebuke of Beijing’s position, invalidating its expansive “nine-dash line” claim to about 85 percent of the South China Sea.

Many are hoping that China will bring its claims into line with UNCLOS, as the UN pact is known, and some even think it has actually begun the process of doing so. Unfortunately, a series of hostile reactions in the last few days, including an implied threat to use nuclear weapons to defend its outposts in that body of water, suggest Beijing’s reaction will not be benign.  

China maintains it has sovereignty to all the features—islands, rocks, and low-tide elevations—inside its now-famous dotted boundary. Five other states—Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam—also claim those features, and China’s nine-dash line impinges on the exclusive economic zone of a sixth, Indonesia.

Despite China’s expansive claims, Andrew Chubb, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Western Australia, has published a widely circulated article suggesting China will eventually accept the view of international law embodied in the ruling. He points to a central government statement issued on July 12th, which Chubb says “contained welcome hints that China may be subtly, and under cover of a strong stance on its South China Sea territorial sovereignty, bringing its South China Sea maritime rights claims into line with UNCLOS.”

Despite Chubb’s optimistic analysis, Beijing’s response has been disheartening. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China solemnly declares that the award is null and void and has no binding force,” declared a statement issued just moments after the issuance of the ruling. “China neither accepts nor recognizes it.” Beijing’s reaction to the ruling has been accurately characterized as “non-acceptance, non-compliance, and non-implementation.”

Yet China’s rejection of the arbitral award has gone beyond the rhetorical hard line. In blatant defiance of the terms of the ruling, Beijing has again blocked Philippine fishing boats from reaching Scarborough Shoal, which China seized in early 2012, and it has sent its own fishing craft into what appears to be the exclusive economic zones of other countries.

In the wake of the Hague ruling, Beijing also walled off part of the South China Sea for a three-day naval drill beginning on the 19th.

Furthermore, China’s navy gave an unpleasant reception to Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, who arrived in China for three days of talks on the 17th. On the day before Richardson landed, one of China’s top admirals, Sun Jianguo, stated that American freedom of navigation exercises could result “in disaster.” And then Richardson’s counterpart, Admiral Wu Shengli, told him on the 18th that China will resume the controversial reclamation of the Nansha Islands, the Spratlys.

Not to be outdone, the Chinese Air Force issued a thinly veiled and ominous threat. Two days after the award in The Hague, it released a photograph of a nuclear-capable H-6K bomber flying over contested Scarborough. Given the timing of the release, it is likely that the Chinese military intended to issue a warning of a dire sort.

Finally, further inflaming the situation, Beijing early this week said it was beginning, on a regular basis, "combat patrols" over the South China Sea "with strategic bombers, interceptor jets, reconnaissance planes, and refueling aircraft."

Of course, it’s possible that Beijing’s primary audience for the muscle-flexing is domestic. Yet, China’s blustering defiance of the international arbitration ruling and the process itself is a further warning to the international community that China is a rogue determined to play by its own rules.

For decades, the international community had hoped that China would enmesh itself in the world’s laws, rules, resolutions, treaties, and norms. When given a chance to do so, Beijing instead moved its brand-new military into the field.

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