A ruling tells China why no country is an island

For the first time, an international tribunal rules against China and its claim on the territory of another country. The decision is the basis for other countries to question China’s denial of universal values, especially those needed for world order.

A satellite image shows Chinese construction of possible radar tower facilities in the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea.

It is not easy for a country, especially one as powerful as China, to be held responsible for its mistakes by the international system of justice. Yet on July 12, for the first time in its history, China was told by a world tribunal that it had violated international law by laying claim to islets clearly belonging to the Philippines.

The ruling, handed down by a panel of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, raises immediate practical issues. Will China defy the decision and threaten any foreign ship or plane that transits near the rocks and reefs it now commands with artificial outposts in the Spratly Islands? Will China wield its economic clout to force other states to honor its claims or compel bilateral negotiations with weaker states in Asia?

Such questions arise because China refused to participate in the panel’s proceedings and then called the decision “null and void.” Except for foreign pressure, the ruling is unenforceable.

A harsh reaction by Beijing would reflect the kind of no-rules world that existed before the United Nations was founded in 1945 under the principle of peaceful resolution of disputes. China’s defiance would also violate the rule of law and arbitration process embedded in the 1982 Law of the Sea treaty. Like almost every country, Beijing has joined that treaty, whose principles were the basis for the panel’s reasoning. Even if China were to withdraw from the pact, its obligations under the ruling would persist.

In the past, other big powers have ignored rulings by an international tribunal, although they have often come around to accommodate them. In 1985, the US ignored an International Court of Justice ruling over its mining of Nicaragua’s harbor, a case much debated by legal scholars.

What makes China’s reaction worrisome is that its ruling Communist Party has campaigned since 2013 to deny the existence of universal values that undergird such concepts as rule of law. The party argues that China’s history and culture provide a unique set of values, and even allow for its “historic” claims to islands hundreds of miles from its shores. The party has ordered official media and state schools to not even discuss universal values.

Its view reflects the notion that there are no permanent principles only permanent interests. Yet when one country takes territory from another – as China did with the Philippines, or as Russia did with Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 and Iraq did with Kuwait in 1990 – then the vital principles of a peaceful world are at stake. If world relations rely mainly on subjective assertions rather than moral principles and a vision of ultimate good, then weak countries can feel very insecure.

In addition, without rules on the high seas, what becomes of freedom of navigation even through undisputed waters?

“If every people pursues merely the interests of its own state, then we might have a universal value, but it will be a value of exclusion and conflict,” writes He Huaihong, a philosopher at Peking University, in a new book “Social Ethics in a Changing China: Moral Decay or Ethical Awakening?” Mr. He adds that the ruling party’s use of nationalism to rally the Chinese people behind its form of personal rule (or to assert territorial claims) “will never have the spiritual power to draw in other nations.”

For those countries that are now willing to ask China to abide by the ruling, this is an opportune moment to ask that it also recognize the common values needed for international order.

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