Reuters Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy patrol near a sign in the Spratly Islands, known in China as the Nansha Islands, February 9, 2016. The sign reads "Nansha is our national land, sacred and inviolable."

U.S. Hypocrisy in the South China Sea

Washington's Mistake With Beijing

On July 12, in a long-awaited verdict, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled unanimously in favor of the Philippines, which had submitted a 15-point case to the tribunal in January 2013 opposing several of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. The tribunal agreed with the Philippines that “China had violated the Philippines’s sovereign rights” by building artificial islands and restricting the movements of Filipino petroleum explorers and fishermen within the Philippine’s exclusive economic zone, among other infractions. Most importantly, the tribunal concluded that “there [is] no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line,’” a boundary China created by removing two dashes, after a dispute with Vietnam, from the “11-dash line” that first appeared in a 1947 document published by the Chinese nationalist government. It’s an important boundary since most estimates suggest that it envelops 85 to 90 percent of the South China Sea.

Even with international law on the Philippine’s side, China will most likely continue exerting diplomatic and economic pressure on its southern neighbor. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded immediately to the tribunal’s ruling by declaring it “null and void” since it carries “no binding force.” The ministry added that “China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea shall under no circumstances be affected.” Perhaps Dai Bingguo, a veteran Chinese diplomat who retired as state councilor in early 2013, said it best when he told a gathering last week that the ruling would amount to “nothing more than a piece of paper.” China’s behavior during the tribunal’s proceedings, in which it refused to participate, is a likely signal of what’s to come. It has reclaimed over 3,000 acres, or four square miles, of the South China Sea since 2014, and has recently threatened to withdraw from the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In other words, China has seemed unconcerned American Journal of International Law concluding that the demarcation did not “contradict the obligations undertaken by China under UNCLOS.” In December 2014, the Chinese Foreign Ministry published a position paper arguing that The Hague did not have jurisdiction over the Philippines’s case. Last April, Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai observed that China was “one of the first countries to join and ratify UNCLOS, and we take our international obligations very seriously.” Ironically, and tellingly, China has framed its absence from the tribunal’s proceedings as evidence that it is, in fact, protecting “the sanctity” of UNCLOS from trivial disputes that are not germane to its core purpose. (What its purpose is, then, Beijing has not made clear.) 

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