The rules-based order that is vital for the world would be subverted if countries pick and choose the rules they wish to live by. Major powers have been known to ignore international courts, laws and norms when these run contrary to their interests. Hence, China might say it is doing as others have done before by refusing to abide by the recent judgment of the Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague. Yet, that would be unfortunate, for it would undermine the sound principle that disputes are best settled by negotiations, and if these fail, international arbitration, rather than a might-is-right approach. The worst outcome for the moment is an escalation of assertive actions in the South China Sea that could lead to a hardening of positions or an accidental skirmish sparking a wider conflict that would harm one and all.
The international tribunal found that the Chinese authorities had behaved rashly in keeping Philippine vessels away from disputed waters. Playing chicken has been just one aspect of China's tactical game, heightened from 2013 when the Philippines instituted arbitral proceedings on its maritime jurisdiction. China has also built artificial islands and militarised these in a big gamble to stake out as much as 90 per cent of the South China Sea. The world would hope that the major power will acknowledge that such actions serve little purpose, now that the United Nations-backed tribunal has ruled definitively it has "no historic rights to resources in the waters of the South China Sea".
The clarity of the judgment should be welcomed by all parties, including China, given President Xi Jinping's affirmation that it is dedicated to maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea. The important point to bear in mind is that while the tribunal had convincingly settled the maritime rights linked to the claims, under Unclos' provisions, its ruling does not amount to a judgment on sovereignty over land artificially created. Hence, nationalists need not feel dispossessed and hinder Beijing should it pursue cooperation with other claimants that can yield win-win results.
China's leadership has to adopt a long-term strategy, given the scale and weight of the formidable domestic issues it faces. Under President Xi, economic transformation and anti-corruption efforts have proceeded apace with the aim of putting the country on a stronger footing for many decades to come. There is also recognition of the need for greater international cooperation, prominently represented by its "One Belt, One Road" initiative. Its people must see that when the fortunes of all are interlinked, it is to China's long-term benefit to play the role of a responsible stakeholder. That should be demonstrated unmistakably in the steps it takes now to calm the troubled waters of the South China Sea.