Why China is about to lash out in the South China Sea
Look out! An international legal ruling could enrage Beijing.
An international panel of judges is expected to rule against China in a long-running territorial dispute with neighboring country the Philippines. The ruling, which is likely to undermine China's unilateral claim of virtually the entire South China Sea, could cause the country to angrily lash out.
In 2009, China submitted a curious map to the United Nations. Using nine simple dashes, the map carved out an estimated 90 percent of the South China Sea as Chinese territory — to the detriment of China's neighbors and their own territorial claims. China has since claimed the South China Sea on historical grounds, claiming they were traditionally part of China going back centuries.
The situation is analogous to the United States claiming virtually the entire Gulf of Mexico. Alternately, it's similar to your neighbor deciding that part of your driveway is now his property, or that any of your property is suddenly his.
Under the United Nations' Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), all countries are granted territorial borders of 12 nautical miles extending from their shoreline to the open ocean. Less well known is the fact that countries are also granted Exclusive Economic Zones. EEZs extend from the sea border another 200 miles, and grant exclusive economic use. For example, only the United States can place oil rigs within 200 miles of its sea borders.
The problem with China's so-called "Nine Dash Line" is that it tramples the EEZ rights of other countries, placing their exclusive zones within China's territorial borders. This is despite the fact that China is a signatory to the very convention that grants EEZs.
One of those other countries, the Philippines, decided to fight back in the court of international law. The Permanent Court of Arbitration, an international agency established by the Hague Peace Conference, has been deliberating over the case for the past year. It is expected to announce its decision on July 12, and all indications are that it will rule for the Philippines.
China has already announced it will not abide by the decision, claiming that there is nothing to arbitrate. From China's perspective there is no dispute, because the territory is China's. End of discussion.
Beijing has painted itself into a corner. The evidence backing up its territorial claims in the South China Sea is weak, and with the backing of the International Court of Arbitration there will be no reason — other than the threat of military force by China — for any country to abide by them. As a signatory to UNCLOS, it has endorsed the very border laws it is now violating.
China now faces a choice between a humiliating retreat from its claims or becoming a hypocrite that selectively abides by its international treaties and agreements. It will be a spectacular fall and China knows it, as evidenced by its announcement ahead of time it will ignore the decision. Some experts worry that China, having lost face in the international arena, could lash out after the decision is announced.
One option? Military force. China has announced an entire week's worth of military exercises in the South China Sea starting July 5 and ending July 11. The Chinese military has announced a 38,000-mile no-go zone, almost the size of the state of Kentucky, it is warning outsiders to stay out of. The country will reportedly conduct anti-aircraft, anti-ship, anti-submarine, and maritime interception exercises.
That the war games end the day before the arbitration results are announced is no accident. The exercises will put a large Chinese air and naval force on the doorstep of many of those countries affected by the Nine Dash Line. That force will be armed, fueled, and trained for action.
The temptation could be to sail into the Nine Dash Line and enforce it as Chinese territory, particularly those territories claimed by the Philippines. Most of those territories are uninhabited, insignificant islets so tiny they disappear at high tide. Military resistance would be non-existent, except for a small detachment of Philippine marines based on a rusty landing ship at the disputed Second Thomas Shoal.
If China does lash out it may not kill anyone, but it will kill its credibility in the eyes of the international community. It would put all of China's international agreements in doubt, and trust in China as a global entity will be severely undermined.
Next week will be a landmark in the history of modern China. Beijing can choose to live up to its agreements and gracefully retreat from its grandiose claims. Alternately it can stomp its feet and insist that Chinese claims trump all others, that China is not subject to international law, and undertake dramatic action to prove it. A major power vying for global leadership can only make one choice.