China, the US and a Rules-Based Order for the South China Sea


The central contemporary geopolitical dynamic is the relative waning of US power and the steady accretion of power, wealth and clout by China. Historically, Washington has neither treated another country as an equal nor confronted a rival as powerful as China. Even at the height of its power, the former Soviet Union was an incomplete superpower. China’s multidimensional, sophisticated and comprehensive national power is growing relative to that of the US. Many Americans seem surprised and discomfited that China has begun to reject and challenge US strategic and political primacy in the Western Pacific. As China fills out as a major power, uncontested US primacy will become increasingly unsustainable while US withdrawal from the region could be destabilising.

Tensions have risen over the past decade in the contested maritime environment of the Asia-Pacific where China is pursuing a three-pronged strategy of building up war-fighting and power projection capabilities, calibrated shows of force and a strategy of exhaustion of rival claimants (Japan, Vietnam, Philippines). Apparently random and sporadic acts of provocations and showdowns, deliberately held below the threshold of open warfare, are calculated to induce strategic fatigue over time, erode regional confidence and cumulatively break the political resolve to resist.

The Philippines introduced a potential circuit breaker in this cycle of escalation by referring its bilateral maritime dispute with China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. Its judgment is a vindication of the Philippines complaint and a comprehensive rejection of most of China’s claims in relation to the South China islets, in particular the so-called nine dash line that no one else recognises, and Chinese activities therein.

In Act III, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, Shylock is pressed on why he insists on extracting his pound of flesh from Antonio who is unable to repay his debt. After enumerating the list of injuries and insults to which Jews are routinely subjected, Shylock says: “The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction”. What if China was to respond to the adverse judicial finding by mimicking past US precedents as models of great power behaviour?