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Opinion: A “strange major power” that rejects international law

By Aya Igarashi, China General Bureau chief


This is a heavy blow to the Xi Jinping regime’s strategy for China to become a major maritime power.


The first judicial ruling under international law that China’s self-righteous maritime advances “have no legal basis” has just been announced. This was a judgment completely against China.


As a member of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China is obligated to abide by the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision. Ignoring this verdict amounts to China’s telling the world that it is a “rogue state” deviating from the rule of law, which is a universal principle.


The Chinese Foreign Ministry declared on July 12 that the ruling is “null and void and has no binding force” in an expected immediate reaction to the court ruling. China probably intends to continue its militarization of the South China Sea by deploying Chinese-made aircraft carriers, setting up an air defense identification zone (ADIZ), and so forth to enclose the South China Sea as “China’s sea.”


It may also try to appease the new administration in the Philippines in order to avoid international isolation. Its strategy is to deal with this issue through bilateral negotiations, in which it can overwhelm the Philippines with its military and economic power.


However, China cannot become a “major maritime power” capable of competing with U.S. forces and its allies in the world through intimidation and appeasement alone.


Even Europe, which has experienced Russia’s upending of the status quo in the Ukraine by force, does not see China’s challenge to the rule of law as an irrelevant event in distant Asia. France is calling on the EU to send naval vessels to the South China Sea. The failure of Xi’s strategy will become more pronounced.


Chinese leaders since Deng Xiaoping have actively accepted international rules, taking such steps as joining the World Trade Organization. Yet, since the Xi regime, China has been openly challenging the world order by, for example, setting up a China-led regional bank. With its all-important economic power declining, will this not lead to China’s own weakening?


A fierce power struggle is currently taking place in China ahead of Xi’s second term. Therefore, it is difficult for the leadership to compromise in foreign affairs. In an attempt to shift the international community’s attention away from the South China Sea issue, which involves many other countries, it is possible that China may once again increase tension in the East China Sea, where the Senkaku Islands of Okinawa are located, as it had done before the international tribunal handed down its decision.


China has shown no signs of changing its tough stance, which has been invalidated under international law. Will it charge ahead to become a truly “strange country” that does not abide by international rules? I am concerned that the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling may become a historical turning point for China.

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