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The End of World’s Rules-Based Order?

On Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry, standing next to Perfecto Yasay, his Philippine counterpart, gave strong rhetorical support to the effort by Manila to negotiate with China over their sovereignty and other disputes.

Kerry’s words followed Monday’s statement issued by Australia, Japan, and the US calling for compliance with the July 12 award of the arbitral panel in The Hague on the South China Sea in Philippines vs. China. The ruling, now known in China as the “7.12 Incident,” essentially invalidated Beijing’s “nine-dash line” claim to approximately 85 percent of that vital body of water.

The three-country statement was issued on the sidelines of a meeting in Vientiane, Laos of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. ASEAN’s statement, in contrast, was far weaker. Cambodia, at the behest of Beijing and with the assistance of Laos, was able to block an attempt by Manila and Hanoi to have the 10-nation grouping formally endorse the enforcement of the panel’s decision. 

Beijing’s initial reaction to the July 12 award, which interpreted the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, was all bluster and belligerence, but China may now be moving toward a softer line. For instance, it agreed with ASEAN not to settle uninhabited features and it appears in the last few days to have dropped “nine-dash line” from its vocabulary.

Beijing also agreed to negotiations with the Philippines, yet that was not a sign of flexibility. China said it would begin talking only if Manila agreed to ignore the arbitral award as the basis for discussions, and the Filipinos, understandably, rejected that condition.

While meeting with his Chinese counterpart earlier in the week, Kerry spoke as if he was taking China’s side. His statements in Manila, fortunately, clarified the American position. “We are consistently, year after year, urging parties to negotiate, to work this through diplomatically, bilaterally, multilaterally, build up confidence-building measures,” Kerry said Wednesday. “And when we say that we urge a negotiation, we do so obviously understanding that our friend and ally, the Philippines, can only do so on terms that are acceptable to the Government of the Philippines.”

The broader question is why should there be negotiations in the first place. If the Philippines makes concessions, which most expect if talks occur, it will undercut a rules-based international system. After all, the arbitral panel in The Hague has issued its award and at the moment nobody seems to be doing much to enforce it. As William Choong of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Singapore told the Wall Street Journal, “What we have is essentially a holding pattern between China, the Philippines, and the U.S.”

What is the point of having an award or even a UN convention if no one holds China to account? So far, Beijing has been allowed to sign agreements, take the benefits of provisions it likes, and ignore what it does not. Now, the US appears to have adopted the position that the Hague award, instead of being enforced, can be negotiated.

And this raises a still-larger issue. During the ongoing American presidential campaign, Donald Trump boldly suggested that the US walk away from multinational groupings like the World Trade Organization and break agreements. Many observers—me included—think that is a horrible idea, yet defenders of multilateralism and a rules-based order should not be surprised if these organizations do not now survive.

China has gamed the world. Its decision to ignore the July 12 award is striking, and now nations seem to be bending, fearful of Beijing’s reaction to attempts to enforce international law. That is not the basis of a sound international system. 

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