BOSTON – President Xi Jinping seems to agree with the Athenian general who, more than 2,000 years ago, warned the people of Melos that the strong do what they wish and the weak do as they are compelled. His government insists that nearly all the South China Sea belongs to China — even islets and reefs close to the Philippines and five other littoral states but hundreds of miles from China.
Instead of raising China in harmony, Beijing’s policies point the world toward the brink of war. Intransigent, Beijing rejects the jurisdiction of the Permanent Court of Arbitration and its ruling that China has no historic rights to large swaths of the South China Sea and has wrongly abused not only fishing vessels from the Philippines but the coral riches beneath the water.
Skeptics about international law say that China behaves no differently from other great powers. Few, if any, have bowed to international tribunals. When Nicaragua complained that the United States was mining its waters, the Reagan administrations simply discarded the U.S. commitment to accept compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and rejected the court’s ruling in 1986 against the U.S. In a similar vein, the George W. Bush administration “un-signed” the statute creating the International Criminal Court and abrogated, with no legal justification, the Nixon administration’s treaty with Moscow limiting ballistic missile defense.