South China Sea Danger Zone: Why Pushing China into a Corner Is Dangerous


China’s J-10. Image: Creative Commons.

China’s J-10. Image: Creative Commons.

By Kai He, Huiyun Feng August 6, 2016

The Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) ruling in the South China Sea case filed by the Philippines has been labeled a “sweeping victory” against China. It concluded that China has no legal basis to claim historic rights within the nine-dash line in the South China Sea and that none of the land features in the Spratlys meet the criteria for an island that China — or any other country — can use to claim a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Many countries — including the United States, Australia and Japan — welcomed the arbitration outcome and pressured China to comply with the ruling. Unsurprisingly, China rejected the tribunal’s ruling, and reasserted its ‘indisputable sovereignty’ over the South China Sea. The Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that the tribunal’s ruling is invalid and China does not “accept or recognize it.” Although the original purpose of the arbitration was to resolve maritime disputes in the South China Sea, this ruling will have unintended negative consequences for regional security.

The Tribunal’s ruling breaks the ‘balance of ambiguity’ in the South China Sea disputes. One major cause of competing claims is the inherently ambiguous terms of the 1982 UN Conventions of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Different claimants have interpreted the law to make claims in their own favor. No country has unchallenged claims in the South China Sea.

Although the legal ambiguity may make it hard to resolve the disputes, it provides a certain flexibility for all claimants to manage their behavior and leaves room for compromises if necessary.

The Tribunal’s ruling officially ended this ambiguity by rejecting all of China’s historic claims. But it would be naive to believe that the ruling can resolve the disputes. No great power is likely to accept an international legal verdict that harms its national interests. The unintended outcome of the arbitration will be the continuous escalation of the disputes because no country, especially China, has the same maneuverability that it used to in making their South China Sea policy.

The Tribunal’s ruling pushes Chinese leaders into a tight corner, which may lead them to take risky actions in order to reverse their domain of losses. Although China made it clear in 2013 that it would not participate in the arbitration, the Tribunal ruling is a major diplomatic setback for China. Despite ignoring the ruling, China has lost face in the international community.

For Xi Jinping, a damaged international reputation will put his power and political legitimacy at stake inside China. Xi has no choice but to fight back against the tribunal’s decision, given nationalist sentiments in Chinese society.

According to prospect theory, people are more likely to take risky actions when they feel frustrated and cornered by a disadvantageous situation. And Xi has now been positioned in such a predicament. Although it is still not clear how China will regain its ‘loss of face’, further militarization in the South China Sea, through military exercises for example, seems unavoidable in the near future.

The Philippines and other beneficiaries of the ruling will also face a ‘winning too much’ dilemma that may cause some self-righteous, yet unwise behavior. As the major winner of the arbitration, the Philippines has to decide what to do next. Since the Tribunal has no enforcement mechanism, the victory will not be automatically or easily transferred to substantial territorial and maritime gains.

According to the arbitration, Mischief Reef is in the EEZ of the Philippines and China’s current occupation is ‘illegal.’ But China will not leave the Reef voluntarily after the ruling. The Tribunal also ruled that Filipino fishermen have the right to access the Scarborough Shoal, which has been under China’s tight control since 2012. Will the Philippines be willing and capable to take military actions against China’s ‘illegal occupation’ or ‘illegal control’? There is always a policy dilemma between might and right.

Another big winner of the Tribunal ruling is the United States. As the Tribunal concluded that Second Thomas Shoal and Mischief Reef are low tide elevations, and are therefore not entitled to a territorial sea, the United States will enjoy more ‘freedom of navigation’ (FON) in the region.

Last year, the United States started its military challenge against China’s land reclamation through a series of FON operations. The Tribunal ruling further strengthens the legitimacy of its FON operations in the South China Sea. But this self-righteous perception and related actions will definitely trigger more intensive competition between the United States and China that may not serve either country’s interests.

Although the arbitration has started a new phase of the disputes, it will not change the nature of world politics that is based more on power than rules. Merely hoping or forcing China to abide by the ruling will not resolve the South China Sea disputes. It is time for all parties, especially China and the United States, to cool down emotions and ambitions. To avoid escalating tensions, shelving the disputes and seeking cooperation might be a better choice than trying to resolve them.

Source: National Interest “South China Sea Danger Zone: Why Pushing China into a Corner Is Dangerous”

Note: This is National Interest’s article I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the article’s views.

Comment: The author urges China and the US to “cool down emotions and ambitions” but has influence only in the US not in China. In fact, he is urging the US to cool down in order to avoid giving rise to a military conflict with China. At the same time, China has been normalizing the combat patrol of its air force in the South China Sea and its top admiral has warned the US that FON may lead to disaster. Those are obviously postures to challenge the US and others to fight. Therefore the writer of the article gives the advice: “To avoid escalating tensions,” the better choice for the US is “shelving the disputes and seeking cooperation.”

That is really a wise advice, but will stupid US politicians and generals listen? They have instigated the arbitration and believed that they can deprive China of its rights and interests to the South China Sea or at least as the writer describes position Chinese leader Xi Jinping in a predicament.

The writer says, “For Xi Jinping, a damaged international reputation will put his power and political legitimacy at stake inside China.” He means that Xi will be in trouble to maintain his position.

US politicians and generals did not expect that China would fight to safeguard its rights and interests. Even the wise writer does not realize that China has long been preparing for the consequence of the arbitration ruling. Xi had the vision to see that the arbitration ruling would be entirely unfavorable to China. Xi took quick actions to build the artificial islands precisely for a war in the South China Sea to safeguard China’s rights and interests to the South China Sea. With those islands he has made it impossible for the US to attack China with submarine-launched cruise missiles from the South China Sea. In addition, the islands have also greatly enhanced China’s control of and presence in the disputed waters.

The construction is very expensive. If the arbitration ruling had been favorable to China, Chinese people would have believed that Xi was stupid in incurring such huge costs in building the islands. Now, the ruling has proved Xi’s vision and made him even more popular among Chinese people, officials and troops.

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5 Comments on “South China Sea Danger Zone: Why Pushing China into a Corner Is Dangerous”

  1. Fre Okin says:

    China should look at the Silver Underbelly of the Nine Dash Line Fraudulent Verdict, which is actually Based On the Deliberate ‘Taiping Island’ is a Rock Verdict, Effectively turning ALL islands, reefs, shoals, banks, cays in the Spratlys into Rocks with only 12 NM territorial sea.

    Since almost all of the Spratlys are occupied by VN, PH, Malaysia, Taiwan, China should Just Ignore the occupied features and instead focus on Fishing and Oil/Gas Drilling up to 12 NM of all these areas, effectively allowing China to harvest the South China Sea in International Water. Thank you idiot PCA. Now VN, PH, Malaysia, TW will be very unhappy because the Chinese Big Fishing Boats are coming! The Chinese oil/gas drilling rigs are coming! In any case the Chinese Big Fishing Boats won’t go too near to islands/rocks occupied by VN, PH, Malaysia, Taiwan to avoid running aground. Just fish very near to the 12 NM border.

    What about Control over the South China Sea? China Don’t Need to trouble herself to acquire another island in a war with VN, PH, Malaysia, Taiwan. Instead China should use her deep sea oil/gas drilling platform technology to Park multiple Mobile Floating Platforms at strategic places like near Dai Hung oil field in Southern part of Vietnam in the Spratlys there, near Reed Bank, Mischief Reef, Scarborough Shoal, James Shoal, even a repeat of the location near Triton Island, Paracel where oil/gas drilling took place, but this time build a Permanently anchored Mobile Floating Platform there with more radars, drones to check on US, Japanese etc presence.

    With the ‘island as rock’ verdict, the PCA hope to Restrict China’s Nine Dash Line sea control. But on closer look, this can be overcome and China actually win by being able to fish/drill much closer to VN, PH, Malaysia,Taiwan possessions In International Waters and there is Nothing they can do about it!

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  2. Bodo Aquino says:

    “Arbitration”? What a joke. Instead of arbitration – mechanism to ease and settle dispute, this has instead inflamed and escalated the dispute and make the matter worse. Goes to show how exceedingly stupid, Manila, Tokyo and Washington are. Then again, what do expect from a serial abuser of law and process like the U.S. whose main goal was to stir up trouble in East Asia through its detestable rigging of a private court’s “ruling” and then proclaim to the world America has unfettered access to other countries frontyard. Why should Beijing and China “kowtow” to this kind of frame-up? On the contrary, it is right to make the culpable parties – namely Philippines, Japan and U.S. – pay a price.

    As a bystander, I can only shake my head at the stupidity and foolishness of countries like the Philippines and Japan to follow the low class, immoral, and unprincipled conduct and behaviour of the U.S.. You may do this to smaller and weaker nations yu can bully but sorry man, you can’t do it to bigger and strong nations. You are just creating trouble, chaos and tension for the world to see.

    Stupid is as stupid does. And Benigno Aquino and Shinzo Abe will go down in history of two of the stupidest prime ministers in East Asia. There are many ways to solve a problem but for the stupidity and corruptibility of these two idiots.

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  3. johnleecan says:

    From Inter National Interest article:

    The Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) ruling in the South China Sea case filed by the Philippines has been labeled a “sweeping defeat” against Philippines and USA. After the ruling came out, UN immediately said the tribunal is not a UN agency and is not connected in any way with ICJ. The only thing the tribunal has in common with the UN is that it rented a space in the same building as the UN. The tribunal’s legality is now in question after the international community have found out the Philippines paid US$30 million for the creation of the tribunal, including paying for the rent, the salaries of the lawyers and even the salaries of the judges.

    This crushing defeat of the Philippines has pushed the Philippines into a corner and has now nothing left to negotiate with China.

    The USA, Australia and Japan is now in overdrive and trying to convince the international community that China has to comply with the invalid and illegal ruling but their efforts have failed since only about 6 countries agreed with the tribunal ruling. And with the already tainted reputation of USA and the stigma of “Liar” following the invasion of Iraq, it has been hard for the USA to convince the international community of their lies.

    The unintended outcome of the arbitration has given China more maneuverability than it ever had with regards to its South China Sea policy. Now, China is patrolling the South China Sea with fully armed bombers, jet fighters, destroyers and installing radars and anti-missile defense.

    The Tribunal’s ruling pushes USA into a tight corner, which may lead them to take risky actions in order to reverse their tremendous loss of face in the international community.

    For Obama, a damaged international reputation will put USA’s role of international police and hegemon into question.

    According to prospect theory, people are more likely to take risky actions when they feel frustrated and cornered by a disadvantageous situation. And Obama has now been positioned in such a predicament. Although it is still not clear how USA will regain its ‘loss of face’, further timid FON in the South China Sea seems likely.

    China has called USA’s bluff and now America has agreed that the best way is thru negotiations.

    The illegal and invalid tribunal’s ruling has further strengthened the legitimacy of China’s 9 dash line claims.

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  4. Steve says:

    According to Wang Junmin, deputy dean of the CPS Postgraduate Institute, the Arbitral Tribunal wasn’t able to rule on questions of sovereignty and while it did rule that China’s historic rights claim to the 9 dash line was incompatible with UNCLOS, the tribunal did not conclude that the 9 dash line was invalid or illegal. Also, Mr. Wang added that China has historic title and historic fishing rights in various areas within the 9 dash line. Due to the proximity of the archipelagos or island groups, Mr. Wang said that China could draw straight base lines around the features it occupies in the Spratlys and thus claim extended maritime zones outwards.

    This is indeed a hardened line, but so are those engineered islands. With or without the initiated PCA hague case against China by the Philippines, I believe China was already in the process of engineering those islands to safeguards its sovereignty and defence against external threats from the depths of the SCS. After all, the design and engineering of those Dredges were partially aided by Germany before final construction.

    Furthermore, I am not sure if China has been cornered or need to cool down emotions and ambitions. It was the Philippines supported by the US that created tensions and hoping to rewrite maritime rules of the SCS after the law abusing ruling by the PCA ,which China claims as illegitimate and unacceptable.

    After All, China has militarised a new stratagem of Air Bomber and Naval patrols against external threats. As the Russian media Sputnik has elaborated recently, the US just don’t have the Tools to counter China’s A2/AD and comprehensive military support strategy.

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  5. Simon says:

    China knew full well how the PCA ruling will go that why it did not participate in it. The PCZA is subordinat eto American interests. If there was a chance it mighta impartially China would have submitted a case against the Phillipines long ago. The author from National Interest is wrong to think the PCA ruling is ilegal. Without UN backing it is not. We know the UN came out immediately and dismissed the PCA as not being a sponsored agancey to enfprce intternational law. The author focus more on China’s loss when technically the PCA ddeclare no countries has any claims to the SCS. Also the PCA did not arbitrate over sovereignty of the islands and the author plain wrong to believe it had in the case of Mischief Reef which is under Chinese control. No least the article made no mention of Phillipines and America’ s recent defeat at the ASEAN summit which dropped the PCA ruling entirely.

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