South China Seas: With Greater Power Comes Greater Responsibility

On July 12, 2016, China found itself on the wrong side of international law on an issue of territorial sovereignty, one of the core pillars of the communist party’s legitimacy. Moreover, the issue has escalated to a level of potential severity that it need not have had. On this date a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled on a case brought by the Philippines to clarify a number of issues under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in relation to its ongoing territorial dispute with China in the South China Seas. Most observers had expected the tribunal to rule in Manila’s favour, particularly since China rejected its jurisdiction and refused to formally participate in the proceedings. Further, they expected China to ignore any decision handed down by the tribunal, in keeping with China’s consistent messaging on the matter from the outset. Few, if any, observers though expected a judgement as clear and definitive as the one made by the tribunal in July, effectively declaring nearly all of China’s maritime claims in the South China Seas null and void and its island building activities in the region illegal under international law. This ruling, unenforceable though it may be, has the potential to be a watershed moment in China’s numerous territorial disputes in the region, exposing a number of weaknesses in China’s strategy of engagement to date that it will need to address before moving any dispute resolution forward in a sustainable way. More broadly, China’s current troubles in the South China Sea highlight the need for the country to reconsider its broader mode of international engagement and the need for a comprehensive strategy in regard to its regional relations. As China’s power position in the world continues to strengthen, its regional actions increasingly have potentially global repercussions. The current dispute in the South China Seas is just one of a number of current and future issues with far reaching implications that China will need to resolve as it defines its new place in the world order. The South China Seas dispute has the potential to be an important stepping stone for China: one that can accelerate it on the path of becoming a responsible and respected global citizen or cast it as a rogue among leading nations.

The Context of the South China Seas Conflict

The South China Seas conflict has been decades in the making, simmering below the radar screen for most of its life and only in recent years flaring up to top international headlines. The region itself, a historically uninhabited, 3.5m sq km expanse of sea covered by small islets and reefs, has long been subject to overlapping sovereignty claims by the six countries that border it. Of these claims, China’s is the most expansive, represented by a nine dashed line superimposed on a map of the South China Seas that encompasses essentially its entire area. The nine dashed line was however for most of its existence not backed by any official legal claim, and usually just included a reference to China’s ‘historic rights’ to the areas within it. Further, China failed to specify whether the line delineated the area within which all islands were Chinese territory or the area of territorial sovereignty itself. For decades, the countries around the South China Sea co-existed more or less peacefully with this ill-defined claim overlapping myriad other regional territorial claims, and with most states limiting their actual activities in the zone to fishing and navigation.

The issue was brought to the fore with the increasing economic importance of the South China Seas, as a major trade route through which nearly 50% of the world’s merchant fleet tonnage passes and in terms of the up to 28bn barrels of oil and over 250 trillion cubic feet of natural gas it is suspected to harbour. The recent escalations were trigged by China’s official submission to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLOS) in 2009 that attached a copy of the nine dash line map, which indicated that it was potentially serious about claiming all of the land and water within it. This lead to a series of actions and reactions (see table below) that have culminated in the recent ruling.

The regional perspective holds two very starkly differing views, that of China’s and that of the other participants. To the latter, China’s nine-dashed line is a spurious delineation not backed up by facts and without a credible legal basis. The line extends up to 1,100nm away from mainland Chinese territory and to within just 56nm of other sovereign countries. Under UNCLOS, which China and all of the neighbouring countries are party to, sovereign territories generate a 200mn maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in which a country has exclusive rights to exploit natural resources. China’s nine dash line cuts deeply into the EEZs of the other countries in the South China SeasWhere we get concerned with China is where it is not necessarily abiding by international norms and rules and is using its sheer size and muscle to force countries into subordinate positions” President Barack Obama, April 2015 and in some cases extends more than 200nm beyond the furthest islands within the line itself, extending China’s claims even further than ownership of the land features in the region would imply. To these participants, China is a bully that, having ascended to the rank of the undisputed leading regional power, is now throwing its weight around to further its own economic and strategic interests at the expense of its neighbours.

China’s view on the matter is clearly very different; this view holds that the South China Seas have been an integral part of China for time immemorial, with its claim clearly and undisputedly staked since the Republic of China first officially claimed the region in 1947. Furthermore, China has taken the public stance that all territorial disputes are matters ofChina has legitimate rights to explore these regions and conduct military moves because they are China's inherent territories. There is no compromise to this fundamental principle, especially in face of outside pressures. The Global Times Aug 2017 principle and any compromise sets a precedent on territorial sovereignty in general, whether it is an inch of territory in the South China Seas or a block of downtown Beijing. Further, China takes the position that its actions in the region all fall within the legitimate exercise of its sovereignty, and the reactions of its neighbours have been orchestrated or at least encouraged by the West as part of its strategy of weakening and discrediting China’s standing. It is unclear whether China’s leadership itself fully subscribes to this view; it is however the official narrative the government has created domestically, portrayed overtly in the public media, and one that now largely determines its scope for future actions. The gap in understanding between China and its neighbours, therefore, is vast.

Regardless of their views, most of the states have been ramping up activities in the South China Seas to strengthen their claims, in spite of the 2002 Declaration of Conduct signed by the parties which bound their behaviour through ‘self- restraint’. In the meantime, China has sought to protect its interests by calling for bilateral dispute negotiations with the adjacent states in keeping with the declaration, while slow-rolling the negotiations towards the first step for any settlement, a ‘Code of Conduct’ for the parties involved. The recent Hague ruling makes it clear that this approach is no longer working and that China will need to rethink its strategy in the South China Seas. The tribunal’s judgement, regardless of whether it is accepted by China, has created new facts on the ground and seemingly clarified issues that China has preferred to leave opaque until now, creating the need for a new approach. More fundamentally, China’s core argument that the territorial disputes are bilateral issues between states and must be solved as such has become too simple for what has become an increasingly complex set of issues. Beyond the several overlapping territorial claims on the region, there are a multiple additional factors at stake here, including legitimate security interests of third parties including India and the United States, the integrity of the rule of law, and global economic interests. While China and its opponents don’t need to solve for all of these (indeed many of them will be diametrically opposed to their own legitimate interests) any sustainable resolution will at least need to recognise their existence.

The Broader Significance of China’s Response

China’s response to the tribunal ruling and its future conduct in the South China Seas dispute has a significance that goes far beyond establishing sovereignty over a couple of uninhabited rocks. China’s rise to world power status has taken less than two decades and so it is no surprise that China is still coming to terms with its position as the world’s second most powerful nation and the roles in the international order that this entails. Having successfully charted its ‘peaceful rise’ for a number of decades it now finds itself with geopolitical and geostrategic interests that extend far beyond its immediate neighbourhood. This event therefore has material significance for how the rest of the world sees China; it can be an event where China listened, recalibrated and continued on the path of its ‘peaceful rise’ or it can be an event that defines China as a predatory aggressor and relegates it for the established powers to the status of another Russia. The key factors driving the need for a rethink of China’s engagement in the South China Sea and beyond include the following:

I. With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility. China today represents 19% of the world’s population, 15% of its economic output, 12% of trade and 12% of its military spending. In today’s global and interconnected world, the country’s scale demands its engagement across all major international issues. In light of its current position, its argument that it is a developing country unable to shoulder the burden of global leadership is ringing increasingly hollow. China is today an important global actor that can no longer simply pick and choose where to engage and where to be obstinate. As an emerging superpower, China will need to do more to help solve the global issues it has in the past preferred to be a spectator of. This would imply for example finding solutions to ISIS rather than losing international credibility by finding similarities with domestic separatists in Tibet and Xinjiang. Significantly, many of the important issues it will need to engage on will touch on matters that China sees as purely domestic, and therefore outside of the realm of foreign policy. For example, China has shied away from international human rights issues lest the conversation turn to its human rights track record at home. International relations are complex and holistic, and despite China’s best efforts it will no longer be able to compartmentalise issues it likes from those it would rather bury. There are established rules of the game in international relations that China needs to learn how to play and it will need to play them well, one of which is that over the long run, not participating at all is worse than playing and losing the occasional point as the game progresses.

II. Supporting the Rule of Law. The international community has created international laws and institutions that provide one of the core pillars of mutual cooperation and security in a multi-polar world. The quality of China’s global citizenship is judged on how well it embraces these as its power and participation in the international community grows; even though these have clear flaws they have served the international community well since World War II. China’s frustration with these laws often stems from its wish to preserve its optionality and utilise its coercive capability and this is exactly what these laws are meant to protect weaker players against. China can choose to ignore these but then it becomes a renegade player in the international community and this is also not We should jointly promote the rule of law in international relations. We should urge all parties to abide by international law and well-recognized basic principles governing international relations and use widely applicable rules to tell right from wrong and pursue peace and development. President Xi Jinping, Speech at the 60th Anniversary of the 'Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence' July 2014 what China desires.The PRC’s domestic approach to law explains well the approach China is taking internationally. Domestically, China is used to introducing laws that are vaguely worded or vaguely implemented, providing the party with significant flexibility in using the law to its own advantage e.g. China’s state secret law, which is so broadly worded that it can be used to criminalise the dissemination of politburo members’ birthdays or its opaque business regulations, which provide the government with a large degree of discretion over companies’ businesses. However, while the CPC’s authoritarian grip on power and the absence of real checks and balances domestically allows this, internationally, China is not a global hegemon that can ignore and dispense with international law as it sees fit, even with advance notice, as it gave in the case of the tribunal. The fact that it has been at pains to point out (outside of the tribunal proceedings) that the nine dash line is in keeping with UNCLOS, and that China therefore is abiding by the law, is evidence that it’s leaders hoped to secure a ruling that was sufficiently vague such that it would have the freedom to continue its current approach. Whereas the strategy of deploying a combination of threats and promises to get its way on a wide range has worked well with certain countries, e.g. the UK under David Cameron, it did not work in this case. The judgement calls for China to rethink what it means to be a party to international law, especially given that its leadership has reaffirmed the maintenance of and promotion of international rule of law one of the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’ that governs its foreign policy.

III. Signalling Impact on China’s Broader Foreign Policy Ambitions. China’s actions in the South China Seas dispute have an important signalling effect given it is widening its foreign policy engagement to match its growing strategic interests and also given it is now playing a much more active political, economic and security role in the region. China has launched a number of ambitious initiatives that have the potential to fundamentally transform the Asia-Pacific and broader Eurasian region, including the establishment of the $100bn Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative that intends to open up land and sea trade across the continent. The success of these initiatives depends on the strategic buy-in and support of a large number of countries, some of which to date have had only minimal or largely transactional relationships with China. This will require convincing potential participants that China is a measured and reasonable partner who can resolve disputes that may arise in a fair and equitable fashion. China’s mode of operation is closely watched therefore and it is well noted by its potential new partners that when China has suffered foreign policy set-backs, its commitment to work as a partner have given way to a more aggressive mode. Recent examples include the pressure exerted on South Korea following China’s failure to prevent the THAAD missile shield deployment, the escalations with Japan leading to the latter widening the constitutionally limited defence mandate that has stood for nearly 70 years, and its manoeuvring to keep ASEAN out of the South China Saes disputes. China may well have chosen to abandon soft power in favour of force but if so, it may find itself exactly in the position it accuses of others of putting it in: on the outside and hoping or working for its fall.

IV. South China Seas Status Quo Dangerous and Unstable. Finally, the status quo in the South China Seas is not stable. The territorial disputes in the region may be 70 years old today but there is little reason to believe that they will be able to continue for another 70. China of today is in a very different geopolitical place than the China of 50 or even five years ago, and the issues no longer look like they can be deferred for future generations to solve. Over the past five years the stakes (and tensions) have been steadily raised through a series of tit for tat actions whose cumulative impact has been significant. Today there are more settlements, more commercial activity, more naval activity and more actors involved in the region than ever before. Given the density of activity in the contested areas and the ongoing low levels of interference the parties are inflicting on one another, the probability for unforeseen accidents has increased exponentially. The vagaries of storms, shoals and the leeway accorded to China’s maritime militia (essentially armed fishing boats) are a recipe for disaster that may well lead to an event with unforeseen consequences, be it an accidental death, a ship sinking, or a weapons’ malfunction. In the absence of clear rules of conduct and a process for conflict resolution, and considering the heavily politicised nature of the disputes domestically for China and others, these events may well trigger a spiral of escalation that no one wants but no one can stop. It is worth China considering how it would react in the face of shooting a Japanese civilian plane from the sky; will it be Russia and if not, is it ready to apologise? Constructively addressing the disputes in the South China Seas is at a critical juncture to ensure regional stability and security.

The case to address these issues and chart a new path in the South China Seas and for the country’s foreign policy more generally is clear. China’s current axiom of blaming any resistance to its foreign policy actions on anti-China bias and a conspiracy by the West to contain it is no longer serving it well. The “They're all against me" position may still go down well for domestic propaganda purposes and serve as a foil allowing China to avoid meaningful engagement in the short-term. In the long-term, however, the country stands to gain little benefit from this position, not least because it is no longer seen as credible by the majority of international actors. There are encouraging signs that China’s leaders themselves have recognised this, at least for issues that are clearly global in scope, such as climate change. Having effectively stalled the Copenhagen Accords in 2009 on the principle that it as a developing country was being unfairly burdened with emission reduction targets (despite being the world’s second largest emitter of CO2), China reversed course in 2015 to work with the US on pushing through the Paris climate accord, which included significant reduction targets for both countries. China will need to apply the same pragmatism and leadership to a much wider range of foreign policy issues, even including the ones that it narrowly defines as ‘domestic’ issues.

Principles for China’s Foreign Policy for the South China Sea and Beyond

What can and should China do? Its first inclination will likely be to wait and see. The tribunal ruling has clearly been an embarrassment for the country that it will want to move on from by pretending it never happened. At least with regards to the ruling, this would be a tried and tested path, as no permanent member of the UN Security Council has ever complied with an arbitration ruling on an issue involving UNCLOS. Unenforceable arbitration rulings aside, position power appears to be on China’s side; China today exercises control over a large number of the islands in the region and has built 3,000 acres of artificial land in the past 18 months, including building three new aircraft runways. If it chose to do so, China could take a wide range of aggressive actions in response to actions by smaller nations (e.g. accelerating or widening the island building program, declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone over the area (an action that it took in the contested East China Sea), or challenging freedom of navigation operations in the area), each of which might cause an international outcry but none of which individually pass the threshold that they will trigger a forceful response. However, for all the reasons listed above, this is a high risk strategy with potentially catastrophic unintended consequences.

The alternative is for China to engage comprehensively and constructively. Doing so effectively will require it to embrace a foreign policy framework that will shape its interactions and relationships far beyond the current South China Seas dispute and over time help reposition China as a [respected] regional leader.

I. Embracing and Leveraging International Law. As a first step, China will need to more effectively use international law. Had it taken a better approach to using international law and process China could have almost certainly shaped the tribunal’s decision to less unfavourable one. China’s non-participating approach - refusing to attend the proceedings but sending in position papers - has not served it well. Given the current ruling, even if China [The ruling] “amounts to nothing more than a piece of paper … We in China would not be intimidated by the U.S. actions, not even if the U.S. sent all 10 aircraft carriers to the South China Sea” State Councillor Dai Bingguo ends up winning the ultimate sovereignty dispute over the rocks and reefs of the region, a question outside of the scope of tribunal, its island building in the region has been declared illegal in all cases, putting China on the wrong side of the law. China’s objections to the ruling are telling, focusing on the tribunal’s lack of jurisdiction over questions of territorial sovereignty, a matter that the tribunal itself explicitly agreed it was barred from considering. By having failed to properly distinguish between questions of sovereignty and questions of international law under UNCLOS China ceded the initiative in the dispute to the Philippines who have shifted the dispute from a bilateral to an international legal one in a manner that allowed them to score a win. China will clearly need to make up what is an evident deficit in the strategic use of international law, both in the current territorial disputes as well as in broader foreign policy matters. It is clear that the Philippines victory at the tribunal is only the first of many international legal battles China will need to fight, and these may well include domestically sensitive issues such as the status of Hong Kong and human rights.

II. Engage and Participate in Multi-lateral Institutions. For decades, Beijing has been cautious about participating in multi-lateral institutions, complaining that these were established at a time when China was weak and that the rules of the game are rigged against it. This strategy does not serve it well. ‘The system is rigged’ is not a mature view held by empowered actors but by those seeking to make excuses for what they expect to be failures. While it is undoubtedly true that multilateral and supranational institutions today are dominated and shaped by the Western countries who created them, China can still benefit from engaging in a smart and controlled fashion as China has demonstrated before. China has done this before and now plays the WTO rules as well as anybody, having launched nearly 50 WTO disputes and having won a significant portion these, (a track record that has coincidentally not prevented it from continuing to claim that the organisation is biased against it, though). Engaging more constructively in existing institutions does not limit Beijing’s ability to form their own alternatives, as they have been doing. In fact, engagement provides China with a unique opportunity to shape positively how these institutions will interact with the ones that it masterminds (e.g. the AIIB and the World Bank), questions that to date remains largely unanswered.

III. Change the Domestic Narrative. Any shift in China’s foreign policy is predicated on aligning it to the domestic narrative the communist party has woven. The increased patriotism and nationalism the party has encouraged to support its legitimacy places seriously limits on its ability to explore alternative options on questions of sovereignty, “...[a] verdict more radical and shameless than many people had ever expected. All Chinese people are outraged by this illegal verdict and the world's peace-loving public is astonished by the biased decision that may escalate regional tensions.” Global Times July 2016 security and even economic partnerships. Short of opening up key issues to open debate to allow multiple points of view to be aired and considered, (which would represent a reversal of the tightening media control the government has enacted in recent years), it will be a difficult process to undo the views and sentiments it has instilled in the public. Simply changing tack on the South China Seas dispute and spinning the ensuing results in a positive light will also be insufficient; China will need to reframe the public view on the issue if it is to successfully back down from its current hard-line stance. This would need to include a number of carefully managed elements, including the acknowledgement of the inconsistencies between China’s claims and international law, the framing of the territorial disputes in the broader regional picture, such as the execution of the ‘One-Belt, One-Road’ strategy and the promotion of controlled cultural interactions with the Philippines and other states to personalise what is today an abstract conflict. If successfully executed, this reframing could become the template for the management of future issues tied to strong domestic opinions, and one would hope, the first step to a longer process of opening up free information and debate for an informed public. However, having lost face, it now faces a difficult task to reverse its position.

IV. Build-up Soft Power. China’s soft power has traditionally been weak, and its management of the recent ruling is no exception. Having originally built a network of international support for its position on the South China Seas dispute, with over 60 countries at least partially backing its stance (if not on sovereignty then on China’s proposed process for resolving the issues), it has failed to follow up on this support since the ruling. To date, only five countries have spoken out in support of China and criticised the proceedings or the court’s finding, a missed opportunity for China to influence a public opinion that now overwhelmingly sees China as being in violation of international law. Where China has successfully exercised what it considers to be soft power to date it has often done so in a way that looks very much like the opposite, for example by providing a US$700m loan aid to Cambodia in exchange for it vetoing an ASEAN communique on the South China Seas dispute, an action that hurt China’s credibility as an honest party seeking a peaceful resolution of the matter. This form of soft power is increasingly seen as merely a bribe. China’s ability to exercise soft power is certainly tied to the question of its domestic narrative, as the hard line stance it has taken with the domestic media offers little scope to woo international opinion to its view of the issues. More broadly though, China will need to engage in a more comprehensive and systematic outreach, beyond providing soft loans and investment. It has done so successfully in Africa, promoting education in the region and providing scholarships to 300,000 African students in China in parallel with financial investment, and should seek to replicate these programs with other regions. True soft power though comes from civil society, individuals, universities, pop culture, film and entertainment, which can create sympathy and attraction even when the government is exercising hard power that creates negative publicity. The US has been particularly adept at this, with the cultural pull of America still effective even when the country’s international standing was at its nadir during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Civil society, particularly in open societies, has a credibility that government propaganda can never achieve. China is still in a phase where its propaganda machine is effective domestically and so it is deferring the day when it drops it in favour of something more open and effective, but something it does not overtly control. However, unless China’s government accepts the need to make the transition, its soft power efforts will continue to fall short.

What does all of the above imply for China’s immediate problem in the South China Seas? Firstly, there is no easy solution to the disputes China finds itself in today. Secondly, resolution of the sovereignty disputes will take much time and, thirdly, any resolution will be linked to its actions across a range of other foreign policy fronts. For a start, China most likely can begin by arguing that the tribunal ruling has not affected its claims to the reefs or rocks in the region, providing it with an uncontested basis as far as UNLCOS is concerned from which to negotiate its sovereignty positions. It could then work with the Philippines to adhere to the spirit of the 2002 declaration of conduct and agree for a mutual cessation of escalating actions, for example putting its island building on hold until further notice and both countries limiting commercial activities in the region to fishing, unharassed by each other’s navies. With the situation stabilised the countries could proceed with negotiating the framework and process for settling the actual sovereignty dispute, progressing the binding code of conduct both parties have slow-rolled since 2002, in parallel to progressing multi-lateral agreements and conventions that support their peaceful efforts in the region, such as the planned ASEAN-China Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea.

The Philippines, which import 90% of their oil and petroleum, and lackS the funds and technical abilities to develop energy sources in region on their own, would likely be interested a deal that links resolution of the dispute (or at least a path to resolution) to an energy partnership that allows them to recover resources from the area. China could wrap any commercial agreement struck as part of the broader resolution into its Maritime Silk Road initiative, the maritime half of the One Belt, One Road strategy. To date, the majority of investments announced have covered the land based Silk Route Economic Belt, providing Beijing with the opportunity to score a big win on the first leg of the sea route that stretches from China to Athens. In parallel the government will need to openly communicate its objectives its citizens and build regional support for the proposed process, possibly by offering to engage in similar processes with the other disputants in the South China Seas. The above strategy depends on China successfully leveraging all four principles of the foreign policy framework laid out above: utilising and adhering to international law, engaging with multi-lateral institutions, increasing transparency domestically and deploying genuine soft power abroad. Moreover, it will need to do so in a coordinated fashion with the various initiatives underpinning and reinforcing each other.

If China is able to do this well in the South China Seas, it will have adopted a framework and strategy that it can reuse successfully in other parts of the world and in other issues too. For example, in North Asia, China would have the means the reverse the ongoing trend towards the emergence of two power blocks, with the US, Japan and South Korea on one side and, for Western observers, an unsavoury partnership between China, Russia and North Korea on the other. Importantly, it will need to start these processes proactively to maintain the initiative it has lost in the South China Seas through the ruling. While the resolution to the current dispute can serve as a template for future issues, China’s leaders will need to isolate the case itself from its other disputes to prevent the risk of ‘contagion’, e.g. other countries launching arbitration proceedings of their own. More positively, through constructive engagement, China can initiate the forging of a new relationship between the countries of the region, providing greater peace and prosperity than the bipolar scenario ever could. In South Asia and Eurasia, China needs to close the many gaps, India being the largest, in the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative that remain open today due to a lack of trust and transparency around China’s true intentions for the region. Without this trust, even its partners will be left wondering whether China has the commitment to resolving the many issues that will arise over time from its grand plan.

Doing it right even once though promises to be an arduous and multi-year process that will be likely upset by events on any number of occasions. China will not need to solve these issues overnight. However, in order to act in accordance with the responsibility its power implies today, it will need to make continuous progress though, where the inevitable setbacks experienced can be weighed against the honest intentions of the parties to move the process forward.


In any rise to power, incumbent powers teach the rising power how the world works. If this process is successful, the sharing and any transition of power are smooth. The UK and US saw such a sharing and transition in the 20th century, with many costly lessons given their execution across two world wars. China can choose to see the South China Sea ruling as a valuable lesson or it can play the victim and dig in more deeply into its entrenched position. History shows though that ‘digging in’ just perpetuates the "they're all against me" position, potentially for a short term diversionary gain but with few long term benefits. The mature approach would be to seek to move forward constructively, realizing that this is just one event in a series that will help China to calibrate and become a great global citizen and ultimately share great power.

Public statements about the absolute nature of its territorial integrity aside, China has resolved sovereignty disputes by way of negotiation in the past; in 2003, China and Russia resolved the final pieces of a 40 year old territorial dispute that had led to an undeclared war in 1969. At the time of resolution the opportunity cost was low and the world was not watching, but China still needed to manage latently hostile domestic opinion to get the deal done. Today, the stakes are much higher, but this only increases the urgency for addressing the issues for both China and the region as a whole. In increasingly uncertain times, with event risks that have significant global disruptive potential unfolding across the world, coupled with a fragile domestic economy, China can ill-afford to become a pariah as a result of an accident in the South China Sea . The US has traditionally played a leading role in global governance and stability, but its continued commitment to global stability and the geopolitical order appears to hinge on the outcome of its presidential election this November, most prescriptions for the world order and for what constitutes “good behaviour” may be rethought depending on the outcome of that election. Europe has been paralysed from successive internal crises, from the Euro crisis to the Brexit to the current refugee crisis, and is unable to marshal a timely and coordinated response to geopolitical issues. China’s willingness to shoulder global responsibilities, despite its increasing assertiveness in foreign policy, has remained tentative at best, though. For better or for worse, China will now need to begin carrying its weight in the geopolitical order. For China the question today is not whether but how to lead.

The largest challenge it will face in this regard is clearly the ruling communist party’s relationship to the rule of law. Its domestic actions during the past years, arrests, crackdowns and censorship, have raised the concerns that its intentions to “govern the country according to law” have less to do with the rule of law than with the rule by law, where the law is a tool used to rule rather than a constraint on government power. Unless China’s rulers can make this shift (and thereby loosen their grip on the country’s citizens), it will continue to apply this understanding to foreign policy as well, and behave in ways that will estrange them from potential allies, embolden their foes and push the nation towards the position of where many hope and work towards the fall of the nation. Paying more than lip service to the rule of law is a fundamental challenge facing authoritarian governments in the past and the lessons from Stalin’s purges in the 1930s include the Supreme Leader adamant that, “We need the stability of the laws more than ever”. One must recognize that the failure to adopt the rule of law did not prevent the Soviet Union from becoming a global leader from the Second World War until its demise, though. In this context, China’s leaders today will need to make a choice: China can lead within the framework of international law and institutions and with the consent of the led, or it can risk being painted as, and potentially going the way of, what was reviled as the ‘Evil Empire’.


2. References in this regard also include: “China’s been engaged in an aggressive and at times bullying performance and has now been called out by the international court.” Australian Labour defense spokesman Senator Stephen Conroy; “What we are seeing are the bully tactics of China, being the bigger country here. That is their advantage.” Philippine Vice-Chairman of the House of Representatives National Defense Committee, Roilo Golez.

3. More recently, it has sought to keep any discussion of the South China Seas off the agenda at the G-20 summit currently underway in Hangzhou, China, despite the importance being accorded to it by the other participants.

4. Given that the tribunal ruling explicitly excluded the question of sovereignty over these features. It is unlikely that China will be able to put the genie back into the bottle with regards to the tribunal’s finding that the features are not islands though, given that this implies that large portions of the South China Seas are international waters, a state of affairs that benefits at a minimum the remaining 167 parties to UNCLOS who gain access to navigation and exploitation rights in the region.

5. See the July Sign of the Times: Brexit and the Other Forces Destabilising and Reshaping the World

6. Used by President Ronald Reagan to describe the Soviet Union in a 1983 speech