After the Verdict: What Next for China (and Others) in the South China Sea?

Niklas Swanström anticipates China’s reaction to the forthcoming verdict by the arbitration tribunal on its claims in the South China Sea. The likely fallout throws into sharp relief the need for an effective regional security structure to manage differences, he argues. 

A verdict from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on the legal status of the islands and reefs in the South China Sea is rapidly approaching over three years after the Philippines initiated the arbitration against China in January 2013 under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The court’s decision comes in a highly charged context of escalating tensions in recent years between China and the other claimant states, as well as what Beijing perceives to be the United States’ meddling in the region. Conversely, Beijing is accused of aggressively pursuing land reclamation activities and “militarization” as part of its sweeping so-called 9-dashes claim over the majority of the South China Sea.

China exerts claims to the islands and other maritime features of the South China Sea which, it argues, stem from a historical legitimacy stretching back some two thousand years. In so doing, it claims that China’s ownership has only relatively recently been contested by other states, notably the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam. From China’s perspective, the U.S. has additionally served to escalate the disputes by bolstering its military presence and strengthening defense alliances in the region as well as using its Freedom of Navigation program (involving marine patrols close to Chinese-controlled islands) as a pretext for undermining China’s sovereignty.

Thus while many have painted China as the aggressor amidst fears of its growing military power in the region more generally, China instead sees itself as a “victim” in the South China Sea. Whether illusory or not, this victim mentality serves to underscore its claims which it refuses to lose face over.

In fact, it has almost been taken as a given, including by the Chinese themselves, that the court will rule in favor of the Philippines. However, Beijing refuses to accept the legal standing of the court in deciding what it considers to be indisputable Chinese sovereign territory. It has therefore already judged the verdict to be null and void before its announcement, instead calling for the disputes to be resolved directly between the claimant states through negotiations.


Anticipating China’s Reaction

If the ruling goes against China, this will likely lead to a nationalistic surge in China. The interpretation will be that this is another unequal “treaty” that has been foisted on China, with public opinion militating against the ruling. Given the limited room for compromise in any way on China’s territorial claims which the government views as indivisible, there will probably be demands to take more assertive action.

China would likely deem a show of strength as appropriate to prevent other states, primarily Vietnam, from making a similar case as the Philippines for international arbitration. This could involve its unilateral establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone for the South China Sea – similar to the one it declared over the East China Sea in 2013. At the same time, other claimant states will seek to strengthen their own defense capacities and partnerships with the U.S.

Moreover, China would likely step up its construction activities in the South China Sea and militarize further islands or reefs so as to further substantiate its control. In so doing, China will probably increase the number of exploratory missions in all areas of the sea as well as make more use of the PLA Navy, paramilitary forces, and the coast guard. Indeed, China is seeking to boost its naval forces with a focus on protecting not only sea lines of communication but territorial and maritime claims.

Diplomatic relations would also likely be adversely affected not only with the United States and the other claimant states, but also any state that would come out in support of the court’s verdict. China is therefore likely to employ diplomatic leverage as it has done in the past regarding Tibet and other sensitive issues.

Rather than resolve disputes, therefore, the court’s verdict runs the risk of further exacerbating them. The severity of the issue is further magnified by the absence of effective regional security structures to manage crisis.


Need for Regional Security Structures

While no party including China wishes to see an escalation of conflict, entrenched positions make it unlikely that any state will retract its claims. This calls for the creation of multilateral mechanisms to better manage the situation in the South China Sea so as to reduce military tensions as well as handle perceived “breaches” of sovereignty in terms of resource extraction and fisheries.

Existing efforts to deal with security and other challenges have proven inadequate. Despite the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, signed by ten ASEAN states and China, this has not stopped disputes from escalating as signatories have instead pursued narrow national interests. Over a decade on, there is a need for fresh thinking and efforts.

One potential future avenue could be the creation of a so-called “South China Sea Cooperation Forum” as part of a larger regional structure in which external actors such as the United States could also have an associated function. This would on the one hand be welcomed by the Southeast Asian claimant states – individually weak against China – as providing external “backing” to balance China. On the other hand, by only having associative status, it could also satisfy China’s demand that the U.S. as a non-Asian state not be admitted as a full member. Any such structure would need to be supplemented by bilateral negotiations and track 1.5 dialogue initiatives.

Currently the East Asian region is the only one in the world without a regional security organization. With stability and economic development region-wide susceptible to growing tensions and military build-up in the South China Sea, there is urgent need to establish a framework to contain and peaceably manage differences.

Dr. Niklas Swanström is Director of the Institute for Security and Development Policy.