Five years have passed since an international tribunal ruled that China’s claim to sovereignty over the entire South China Sea had no legal basis. Beijing has ignored the ruling and instead strengthened its effective control over the area. Challenging the legal order through force is unacceptable.
Areas of the South China Sea are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Around 1950, China began to assert its own claim, demarcated by the “nine-dash line.” In recent years the country has stepped up its land reclamation and military construction projects, and it has escalated its shows of force. All of this is to extend China’s effective control to its south.
The Philippines took this threat seriously and brought the issue to international authorities, and on July 12, 2016, the arbitral tribunal issued its first international ruling. As a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was the basis for the case, China is required to comply with the tribunal’s decision. But Beijing called the ruling a “waste of paper” and has shown no sign that it will give the ruling any consideration.
The U.S. also concluded that China’s argument was completely illegal in July 2020. Until then, Washington — which has not ratified the U.N. convention — had been neutral in the dispute, urging the parties to resolve the matter peacefully. As the U.S. and China become more confrontational over Taiwan and Hong Kong, the possibility of inadvertent clashes cannot be denied as the two countries’ militaries conduct more exercises in the same waters.
China likely feels uncomfortable being seen as an “outlaw” by the international community. Since the tribunal’s ruling, it has been cooperating with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to formulate a “code of conduct” for the South China Sea.
Ideally each country will regulate its own activities. However, China is said to be pressing for the code of conduct to be exempted from the U.N. convention, and to include provisions that would bar countries outside of the region from conducting military exercises or resource development there. A negotiating position that uses repeated shows of force on one hand, and overrides judicial decisions when convenient on the other, will only heighten the international community’s distrust.
The South China Sea is a major transportation thoroughfare, with one-third of the world’s cargo moving through it. The code of conduct for the area must be transparent. ASEAN, the U.S., Europe and Japan, which faces similar provocations around the Senkaku Islands, must work together to repeatedly urge China to exercise restraint and comply with the law.