Some skirmish in the South China Sea could well become for Asia in the twenty-first century what the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was for Europe in 1914—a trigger for a broader conflict between a rising power and the established order. And such a scenario looks all the more likely after the July 12 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, which negated the very basis of China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Beijing’s response in the weeks that followed—nationalist venting and overt rejection of the ruling through military exercises—undermines once and for all China’s claims about its peaceful rise. China’s Supreme People’s Court even issued its own counter-Hague ruling, threatening to arrest any intruders into its claimed South China Sea territories. China is relatively calm now, but judging by the reception during U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s recent trip to Beijing—in diplomatese for tough talks, the trip was filled with “candid conversations,” with few obvious results—the peace might only be a pause before China hosts the next G–20 meeting in September.
Still, there is some reason to believe that Beijing’s current demeanor may reflect increasing recognition of the consequences of how the world perceives China’s rise. And on that score, the ruling at The Hague does offer Beijing a chance to rethink the complex issues of sovereignty in the South China Sea. Creative thinkers in Beijing could see the ruling as providing China with a much needed off-ramp.
The July 12 decision has created a new status quo by clearly defining the legal map of the South China Sea. It found no lawful basis for China’s claims to 85 percent of the South China Sea, delimited by the so-called nine-dash line. There are no “historic fishing rights” that China can claim to justify pilfering maritime resources in other nations’ exclusive economic zones (EEZ). None of the disputed rocks, reefs, or islets qualify as islands
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