The South China Sea Ruling and China’s Grand Strategy
The International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea has ruled on the case that the Philippines brought in 2013, challenging China's claims and behavior in the South China Sea. International lawyers and the policy commentariat has judged the ruling as a sweeping victory for the Philippines and a significant loss for China, which refused to acknowledge the tribunal's jurisdiction or to take part in the proceedings.
The question going forward is how China will respond. Will it double down on the aggressive and coercive activities of the past six years, behavior that has put most of its East Asian neighbors on guard? Will it continue to interpret the Law of the Sea in self-serving ways that very few countries accept? Or, might China recognize that its South China Sea strategy has been an utter failure and that its best response is to take a more restrained and neighborly approach?
What got us here?
Critical as the next weeks and months will be, it is also useful to take a look back and examine recent events in the broad context of Chinese foreign and security policy over the last four decades. The premise of that reform policy, initiated in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was that a weak China could best ensure its security by engaging and accommodating the international community, in order to gradually build up all aspects of its national power. The most clear-cut feature of this strategy was to join the global economy: China accepted the leadership of the IMF and World Bank; opened the Chinese economy to international trade and investment; carved out critical roles in global supply chains; accepted the liberalization disciplines of the World Trade Organization; and, more recently, began to provide public goods to developing economies. Not everyone has benefitted from China's economic engagement, but on balance it has been a signal success.
China's reformist leaders also recognized the value of taking an accommodating stance toward its East Asian neighborhood, of which the United States is a part. One side of accommodation was to execute a skillful diplomacy designed to reduce tensions and avoid conflict unless Beijing's fundamental interests were under threat. Accommodation's other side was to delay the modernization of the Chinese military and exercise restraint in the use of those capabilities that it did create. This made sense because China both lacked the power to challenge the United States and Japan militarily and needed the help of those and other countries to grow economically.
That approach changed in the early 2000s, when Beijing judged that it would only be secure if it expanded its eastern and southern strategic perimeters into the East and South China Seas. That judgment had its own logic, which maritime territorial disputes and reports of maritime energy and mineral resources only intensified. Thus began a program to build the capabilities to project power into the maritime domain and then use them to press its claims. That campaign created frictions with its neighbors. An increasingly overbearing diplomacy didn't help China's reputation either.