Wednesday, Nov 30, 2022

Hubris in high seas

China’s repudiation of international mediation on South China Sea could be greatly counter-productive.

Historians may well record this week as the time when the long 20th century came to an end, marking the emergence of a new and troubled superpower contestation in Asia. China’s repudiation of the award of an international tribunal in The Hague on its claims on the South China Sea is disturbing for more than one reason. First, China is among the nations that ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas, UNCLOS, which provided for the binding arbitration. President Xi Jinping’s flat rejection of the tribunal marks an extraordinary unwillingness to play by rules his country helped write, and profited from. Second, China has demanded that the world accept a nine-dash line it has marked on maps of the South China Sea, but has never provided an official explanation of the basis of its legitimacy, nor of what rights flow from it. Put simply, China is demanding that its claims to the South China Sea be accepted simply because it is making them.

This is, of course, the stuff of great power behaviour: The US rejected all norms of international law in destabilising regimes in Nicaragua and Cuba, while the Soviet Union brushed aside diplomatic niceties in its pursuit of hegemony over Eastern Europe. In essence, China is seeking to make a simple point about power to its near-neighbours: Insubordinate nations like the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam must cease to expect help from the US, the traditional guardian of the Pacific Ocean. In recent years, China has expanded its naval capacity, as well as the instruments with which to deny the US’ great carrier fleets their unchallenged reign of the oceans.

Beijing’s behaviour isn’t unreasonable. Like any power, it seeks to deny those who could choke its rise as a great power, in this case the US. Thus, China wants to coerce those states which could offer the US access to seas off its periphery, while it maintains control of critical trade routes. The manner in which Beijing has pursued this end, though, has been spectacularly counter-productive. Its muscle-flexing has ensured the US Navy is, today, more actively involved in the region than it has been for over a decade. The Philippines, which only years ago cheered the eviction of US forces from Subic Bay, has today welcomed it back. From Vietnam to India, states across China’s rim are seeking closer alliances with Washington. Like other great powers before it, China may be on the cusp of learning some lessons on the folly of hubris.

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First published on: 14-07-2016 at 12:02:26 am
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