The South China Sea ruling and China’s grand strategy

The International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea has ruled on the case that the Philippines brought in 2013, challenging China’s claims and behavior in the South China Sea. International lawyers and the policy commentariat has judged the ruling as a sweeping victory for the Philippines and a significant loss for China, which refused to acknowledge the tribunal’s jurisdiction or to take part in the proceedings.

The question going forward is how China will respond. Will it double down on the aggressive and coercive activities of the past six years, behavior that has put most of its East Asian neighbors on guard? Will it continue to interpret the Law of the Sea in self-serving ways that very few countries accept? Or, might China recognize that its South China Sea strategy has been an utter failure and that its best response is to take a more restrained and neighborly approach?

What got us here?

Critical as the next weeks and months will be, it is also useful to take a look back and examine recent events in the broad context of Chinese foreign and security policy over the last four decades. The premise of that reform policy, initiated in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was that a weak China could best ensure its security by engaging and accommodating the international community, in order to gradually build up all aspects of its national power. The most clear-cut feature of this strategy was to join the global economy: China accepted the leadership of the IMF and World Bank; opened the Chinese economy to international trade and investment; carved out critical roles in global supply chains; accepted the liberalization disciplines of the World Trade Organization; and, more recently, began to provide public goods to other developing economies. Not everyone has benefitted from China’s economic engagement, but on balance it has been a signal success.

China’s reformist leaders also recognized the value of taking an accommodating stance toward its East Asian neighborhood, of which the United States is a part. One side of accommodation was to execute a skillful diplomacy designed to reduce tensions and avoid conflict unless Beijing’s fundamental interests were under threat. Accommodation’s other side was to delay the modernization of the Chinese military and exercise restraint in the use of those capabilities that it did create. This made sense because China both lacked the power to challenge the United States and Japan militarily and needed the help of those and other countries to grow economically.

That approach changed in the early 2000s, when Beijing judged that it would only be secure if it expanded its eastern and southern strategic perimeters into the East and South China Seas. That judgment had its own logic, which maritime territorial disputes and reports of maritime energy and mineral resources only intensified. Thus began a program to build the capabilities to project power into the maritime domain and then use them to press its claims. That campaign created frictions with its neighbors. An increasingly overbearing diplomacy didn’t help China’s reputation either.

It’s your move, China

Another part of China’s grand strategy has been to integrate itself in the system of international institutions, law, norms, and regimes—both global and regional. This step did not signify a fundamental acceptance of the international order that had emerged and evolved after World War II. Rather, it reflected a belief that China could and should use institutions, law, norms, and regimes to protect China’s interests against hegemonic behavior by others, particularly the United States. (Conversely, the “West” believed that binding Beijing to “its” order would restrain Chinese bad behavior.)

The tribunal’s decision on the Philippines case was a clear blow to China’s long-standing strategy to use international law to advance or protect its interests, prompting feelings of buyer’s remorse. The hardy perennial that China has been the victim of humiliation at the hands of Western countries will only add to the resentful reaction. Of course, China rejects the widely-held view that it is bound by the ruling even though it did not participate in the case. Also, this is a court with no enforcement powers, so Beijing could simply ignore the ruling and use its military and law enforcement assets to continue its past pattern of aggressive and coercive actions—essentially increasing the salience of its military power. That course of action would only further push the test of wills between it and Washington, even though neither benefits from a downward spiral of increased competition and conflict.

Beijing could simply ignore the ruling…That course of action would only further push the test of wills between it and Washington, even though neither benefits from a downward spiral of increased competition and conflict.

China could go even further than simply doubling down. Contrary to the tribunal’s ruling, it could treat the Spratly Islands as islands under international law; define them as a single unit for purposes of defining maritime boundaries; accordingly draw straight baselines around them; then declare for itself an exclusive economic zone that covered most of the waters of the South China Sea; and finally, over time, challenge the rights of other countries to freedom of navigation and the exploitation of natural resources. For the lay-reader, what is important here is that none of these actions would accord with the widely accepted principles of the Law of the Sea. (Ultimately, China might someday insist to the countries of East Asia that it will no longer tolerate their relying on China for economic prosperity and depending on the United States for security.)

On the other hand, China could conduct a serious assessment of how it has exercised its diplomatic, coercive, and legal power over the last half-decade. Is China really more secure after alienating its East Asian neighbors through heavy-handed diplomacy, stimulating a very public coercive counter-response from the United States (too public in my view), and suffered a significant defeat in the international court of law? Might a tactical retreat at this stage, including a recommitment to international law and institutions, better serve China’s strategic interests than more domineering behavior?

A key principle of Chinese diplomatic statecraft beginning in the 1980s was taoguang yanghui, a phrase that basically means to exercise restraint as one steadily builds one’s power. The Chinese national security establishment has forgotten that principle as it conducted its recent policy towards the South China Sea. It would do well to revive it.