In coming days, an international court will rule on whether China violated maritime law by claiming – and also taking – a few tiny islands close to the Philippines. China already says it will ignore the panel’s ruling, which is the very reason for the case: Can there be any rule of law in Asia over competing claims to disputed islands?
China’s rise as a military and economic power has challenged much of the international order set up after World War II. Either as a member of international bodies or from the outside, it has sought to not only change established principles but, in many ways, break them.
It has done this on matters of trade, finance, the internet, and other areas critical to peace or commerce. Twenty years ago, the US Navy was forced to send aircraft carriers to Taiwan after China launched rockets near the island nation to try to scare it into submission.
Now China will likely disregard the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, the panel which is expected to rule in favor of the Philippines in that country’s argument that it controls the shoals, reefs, and rocks near its shores. China’s legal argument is a weak one, based on ancient trading routes and one of a hand-drawn map known as a “nine-dash line.”
The many islands in the South China Sea have strategic value. The sea is a major waterway for shipping. Its waters and seabed are rich in resources, from fish to oil. But more than these material concerns, the territorial disputes show the need to end the “fear that coercion and threats will take the place of rules and laws,” as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe puts it.
In a recent speech, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned that the effect of China’s provocations in taking islands “reflects the region’s distant past, rather than the principled future we all want for the Asian Pacific.”
China’s challenge strikes at the idea that universal values can govern humanity’s interactions. That idea is why the United States, since World War II, has committed itself to defending many nations in Asia, from South Korea to the Philippines. If China were to further take islands from a US ally like the Philippines, Americans would be confronted with fulfilling a treaty obligation – and their own history of spreading the values that most nations now embrace in global bodies. A small court’s ruling in Europe will need to be watched very closely.