The possibility of a flare-up will remain in the South China Sea now that Beijing has dismissed a judicial reminder of the ambit of international law there. The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague decided recently that it has jurisdiction to hear some territorial claims which the Philippines had filed against China over disputed areas in the sea. The court's ruling amounted to a rejection of China's assertion of sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea, a stance said to be based on history and held to be non-negotiable. As expected, Beijing refused to accept any ruling by the court. Instead, it accused Manila of using the law to provoke it politically.
China's global standing would have been enhanced greatly had it sought to argue the case in court on the basis of the same international law that applies to the Philippines as well. After all, the court is entirely impartial as the record shows. Instead, by sticking implacably to the argument about sovereignty, Beijing risks opening the door to the dreaded recourse that nations possess when sovereignty meets law head on: force.
This is not the direction in which the maritime affairs of Asia ought to be headed. America's freedom of navigation exercises are testing China's resolve and ability to implement its sovereign will in contested waters. Beijing's response to American presence in these waters suggests that it is far less dismissive of naval might - as when a US warship sailed relatively close to China's artificial islets - than it is of judicial authority. So, is this the only meaningful approach left? Of course, Washington should not pursue gunboat diplomacy further than is necessary to reinforce the point that the freedom of navigation in international waters is not a right that states can withdraw at will. The South China Sea should not become a proxy theatre of a global contest between America and the countervailing ascendancy of a nationalist China intent on settling historical scores with others.
The prognosis is not good. The absence of a joint declaration at the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus in Malaysia represented a troubling attempt to assuage the conflicting demands of Beijing and Washington by avoiding a choice between them altogether. Asean has been unable to get China to sign a binding code of conduct on the South China Sea. Meanwhile, new issues have come to the fore, in the form of official remarks from Indonesia, not a traditional claimant in the dispute, threatening to take China to an international court if its maritime claims, affecting the Natuna islands, are not resolved through dialogue. Every assertive step taken in the South China Sea - like the building of artificial islands to give credence to dotted lines on maps - will raise the strategic stakes higher. It is safer for all to fall back on the impartial mechanisms of international law.