Today (July 12) may be remembered as an important milestone in world history—an international court in The Hague will rule on a sensitive case that pits the Philippines against China over disputed territory in the South China Sea.
Technically, the case is about the status of certain reefs and rocks in the sea, and consequently how much sea around them is subject to international laws. But it is also a proxy for China’s ongoing battle with its Asian neighbors over how the resource-rich, strategically important sea is divided—via a once-ignored 70-year-old Chinese map, as China wants, or via an international treaty agreed to and signed by over 160 countries (including China), as most of its neighbors do.
In the coming days, China’s reaction to the ruling could have global repercussions for decades to come. The big question is: Will an increasingly powerful Beijing comply with global laws and treaties to ensure peaceful resolution of conflicts?
In this case, at least, all signs point to “No.”
The case is widely expected to be decided in the Philippines’ favor. Ahead of the decision, rather than countering with well-reasoned legal arguments, China’s Communist Party has refused to participate in the hearing, publicly insulted the court, and painted itself as the victim, despite a massive, militarized building spree on disputed reefs.
It has also said it won’t comply with the decision, whatever it is. In fact, Beijing seems increasingly to be setting the stage for war in the South China Sea. Everything from the $5 trillion in global trade that travels through the area to relations between the world’s most powerful nations is at stake.
If China refuses to comply, it will ultimately be the loser, some say: “No country that disrespects international law can truly be a great power in the 21st century,” Brooking Institution fellow Lynn Kuok warns in the Wall Street Journal (paywall).
But how China’s Asian neighbors or Western powers might try to curb China if Beijing ignores an international court is anyone’s guess. (And yes, China watchers and defense pundits have done plenty of guessing.)
Right now, the world is rife with examples of irresponsible and destructive leadership that has had global ramifications. The United Kingdom’s “Brexit” vote and the political vacuum in its aftermath has unnerved businesses, investors, and millions of UK and EU citizens. The divisive, racist rhetoric from a top candidate in the US’s presidential election has alienated allies and sparked a rethink of the US’s place in the world.
Already, China’s Communist Party has “gone rogue” in other ways recently—abducting foreign citizens from the US and Sweden and holding them, following neither its own laws nor agreements it has signed with other countries.
Today’s ruling will test how far the party can push similar behavior in a fractured world.