At some point in the coming weeks an international arbitration court in The Hague will rule on whether China’s expansive claims to virtually all of the South China Sea are legitimate or not.
Beijing has rejected the proceedings brought by the Philippines, a rival claimant in the disputed waters, as illegal and illegitimate even though they are being conducted under the auspices of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (Unclos), which China has signed and ratified.
No matter the outcome of the arbitration, China will come away from this case looking like a bully that thumbs its nose at international rules.
But the Philippines and other governments with overlapping claims to the South China Sea — Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam, Taiwan and Indonesia — could hardly be called winners.
Almost straight after Manila brought the case to arbitration in 2013, China launched a programme of island-building, land reclamation and militarisation of tiny rocky outcrops in the most disputed part of the busy waterway.
That has given China airstrips and military facilities throughout the disputed region and a boldness born from the inability of any country or countries to effectively oppose it.
US officials have complained loudly, claiming Beijing is building a “great wall of self-isolation”. But apart from soundbites and the odd “freedom of navigation” patrol in the region, Washington has struggled to look anything other than impotent and reactive as China accelerates its strategy of “salami-slicing” — taking a series of small actions that do not individually provoke a strong response.
The actions of counter-claimants in the region have been shambolic at best.
Just last week a show of unity over China’s territorial ambitions collapsed after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations retracted a statement expressing “serious concerns” over events in the South China Sea just hours after it had been issued. The U-turn followed a meeting between Asean foreign ministers and their Chinese counterpart and showed just how effective Beijing is at exploiting divisions within international blocs.
There are also growing signs China’s ruling Communist party is much less worried about what the rest of the world thinks of it.
The Chinese foreign ministry has said nearly 60, mostly tiny, countries support its decision not to take part in the South China Sea tribunal, but five of those have since publicly denied this. The eight countries that have publicly stated support for Beijing — Afghanistan, Gambia, Kenya, Niger, Sudan, Togo, Vanuatu and Lesotho — hardly confer international legitimacy.
But Beijing’s claims of global solidarity are meant for domestic consumption, not an international audience.
In a similar vein, the recent verbal assault by China’s foreign minister on a Canadian journalist asking about human rights abuses played quite well with the nationalist crowd at home.
As The Hague prepares its ruling, the Philippines, and other claimant countries, must do a better job of presenting a common position on territorial disputes in the region if it is to counter the narrative Beijing presents to its people.
But a much more effective way to undermine China’s claims of immunity to international arbitration would be for Washington to immediately start the process of ratifying Unclos. Along with the likes of North Korea, the US is among 30 countries globally that have not ratified the treaty. Its continued refusal to do so allows Beijing to quite easily turn the tables and portray Washington as the real bully thumbing its nose at international laws.