The first fortnight of July turned out to be diplomatically disappointing for China. Two events in quick succession not only dented its much self-projected image of a benign major power, but also exposed its vulnerabilities on the security front, proving that it is several steps behind being a secure and stable global power with considerable international repute.

First, the South China Sea dispute, which involves China, Taiwan and the four Southeast Asian countries (Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines), is where it had to turn red-faced in terms of finding a diplomatic manoeuvring space. The Permanent Court of Arbitration Tribunal at The Hague, in a case filed by the Philippines under Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), gave a ruling against China. The Philippines had filed the case against China in the aftermath of the latter’s illegal occupation of the Scarborough shoal. It was also a response to China’s submission of its “nine-dash line” claim to the United Nations. The Tribunal reaffirmed the Filipino position and ruled that China has no claim over the entire South China Sea, and the “nine-dash line” does not stand the test of international laws.

A defiant China, which had refused to defend its case before the Tribunal, said that it was not obliged to follow the Tribunal’s ruling.

Technically, China can afford to defy the ruling, which is legally binding but is not backed by an enforcement mechanism.

After the decision, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in a press release, defended its decision while reiterating claims on the land areas, and quietly skipping the “nine-dash line” claims.

The ruling could provide a cue to the other claimants in the dispute. A likely possibility is of countries such as Vietnam filing case against China at the Tribunal. This would also embolden the United States to visit the South China Sea waters more frequently and conduct the Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) on a regular basis. Not following the Tribunal’s decision has indeed made a dent to China image and bolstered the Philippines’ bargaining position.

This might also put President Xi Jinping’s vision of “One Belt, One Road” initiative under immense pressure, especially the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative, which aims to link Chinese ports with countries of South, Southeast Asia, east coast of Africa, and beyond.

A defiant China, which had refused to defend its case before the Tribunal, said that it was not obliged to follow the Tribunal’s ruling. 

The second blow to China’s rising hegemonic claims in the Asia-Pacific region is Washington and Seoul’s joint decision to deploy the Theatre High Altitude Aerial Defence (THAAD) missile system, negotiations for which started in February 2016 just after the conclusion of the fourth nuclear tests by North Korea.

Amidst growing concerns regarding North Korean nuclear and missile threats, in the first week of July, the US and South Korea concluded their negotiations. The timing of the THAAD location announcement is crucial. A day after the ruling, on 13 July, the South Korean Defence Ministry disclosed that the THAAD system would be deployed in Seongju, a southeasthern county.

Beijing has protested vehemently; even called the South Korean ambassador to China for explanation, fearing that THAAD would allow the US to increase its presence in China’s neighbourhood. It has been speculated that China might take retaliatory steps to economically “punish” South Korea, as it had done in case of Japan in 2010 and the Philippines in 2013. Responding to the THAAD, China has hinted that it would ease the sanctions on North Korea, a step likely to be seconded by Russia.

Apparently, both China and Russia are apprehensive of the US intentions behind deploying THAAD. China’s primary concern is the reach of the radar systems, which can extend as much as 2,000 kilometres, thus possessing the capability to keep an eye on the Chinese missile activity also. In that context, China is mindful of the Russian example. The US deployed missile defence system in Eastern Europe on the grounds of protecting the NATO members and friends from the Iranian nuclear threat. At the time of missile deployment, it was stated that the missile had a specific target, i.e., Iran. However, even after the Iranian crisis has been “defused”, the NATO members including the US have not shown any interest in withdrawing the missiles. The unspoken target now seems to be Russia, especially after the Ukrainian crises. The decision of deploying the THAAD system has exposed China’s security vulnerabilities and demonstrated that it is still far from its dream of being an Asian hegemon.  What cripples it more is the fact that it cannot do the same with the US.

China could have avoided this situation by playing a more constructive role and exerting more pressure on North Korea. China-South Korea relations have been strong and it is one of the latter’s most important trade partners. Beijing’s actions to defuse the crisis have been lax to say the least and might destabilise relations with Seoul.

China is falling short of international expectations. Its lack of interest in defusing the nuclear crisis in Northeast Asia, and refusal to follow international law of the sea have damaged its reputation and led to security concerns as well.

While it is likely that China will carry on with its assertive South China Sea agenda regardless of the Tribunal’s decision, such a step would hurt it in the long run, especially with respect to the One Belt One Road initiative and soft power projections.

Whether China remains defiant, continues to support North Korea and overlooks international law, or makes reconciliatory efforts to claim regional leadership through more constructive and peaceful attempts, will determine the future of Asia-Pacific security architecture as also China’s position in the wider geostrategic and geo-economic equations.

Rahul Mishra is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), New Delhi. Views expressed are personal and do not represent the views of ICWA.


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