ON July 12 the Arbitral Tribunal of the UN-established Permanent Court of Arbitration gave its verdict on a matter brought before it on Jan 22, 2013 by the Philippines. In two detailed Memorials, Manila argued that China’s acceptance of the “Nine Dash Line” as defining its boundary within the South China Sea should be struck down as against international law. Almost the entire UN system in effect functions through out as though global geopolitics has changed little since the organisation was formed in 1945, and the Arbitral Tribunal is no exception.
Both sides of the North Atlantic still dominate the structure and components of the UN system. Hence, four of its five Tribunal members were from the European Union, the other being from Ghana, in a context where a more balanced representation of the different parts of the globe ought to have been attempted. However, throughout history, Great Powers have set their own rules in the architecture of international procedures, and now that China has itself once again become such a global force because of its economic growth and technological prowess, Beijing is likely to ignore a ruling that refuses to recognise its claims concerning the South China Sea.
This is certain to lead to a rise in diplomatic tensions between Beijing and Washington, Manila and Hanoi, among other powers. The position of Beijing is that the dispute with Manila needs to be settled bilaterally. However, given the disparity in size between the two side, the Philippines took shelter in the de facto support given to its claims by a group of countries, including the US and several countries in Europe and Asia. The other billion-plus populated country in Asia, India, has made it clear that it considers itself eligible to traverse the waters of the South China Sea without reference to any other country, and has lately even sent naval ships through the waters engaged in entirely peaceful voyages designed to improve goodwill in the region.
The recent stance of Beijing in the matter of India being made a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group at its Seoul meeting strengthened the anti-China lobby in Delhi and weakened pro-China elements, hence it is very likely that there will be fresh moves at economic and other cooperation between Delhi and capitals such as Hanoi, Jakarta and Manila that refuse to accept Beijing’s claims over the waters The grounds on which China is staking its claim to much of the waters of the South China Sea indicate that the Peoples Republic of China sees itself as the successor to older regimes, including those that existed several hundreds of years ago.
In other words, the Chinese leadership has claimed the historical heritage of China and its people in a manner similar to the approach of European powers, especially in the Balkans, after the 1914-19 war, when the Paris Peace Conference was convened to settle territorial boundaries. Each of these countries, as well as others in Europe, used arguments related to history and culture to back their claims for new boundaries. In like fashion, China is going back to its past to define its future. As already mentioned, given the Great Power status of the PRC, it is improbable that any effort at rolling back its claims will succeed.
However, as in Europe during the first half of the previous century, the July 12 ruling and others that will surely follow are likely to increase tensions between China and countries that seek to enforce a system of laws and boundaries that are related to the post-1945 world and which are illustrated in the way the United Nations was constituted. As a Great Power, China of course has the ability to ignore the Hague tribunal’s ruling. However, those opposing it will now argue that international law is on their side in the dispute. The verdict will give them cover to increase their patrolling of the South China Sea and nearby waterlines. Overall, the verdict will lead to a rise in tensions. Hopefully a war can be avoided, as even a limited conflict will scar relations between the countries involved for a generation and more.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.