China’s problem with the rule of law

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THE weak legal standing of Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea has never been in any doubt outside China’s borders. The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA’s) ruling on Tuesday rebutting Beijing’s claims vis-a-vis the Philippines is thus unsurprising, even if its sweeping nature exceeded analysts’ expectations. The course Beijing charts now will have implications far beyond the South China Sea. And the initial signs are not positive.
The fierceness of its response—President Xi Jinping has said that China “will never accept any claim or action based on these awards” while state media has raged long and hard—makes it clear that backing down is not an option in the immediate future. Much of the commentary exhorting it to do so is viewing the issue through the prism of the rule-based international order. This is indeed a grave consideration.
China’s ascent, kickstarted in the late 1970s, has been predicated upon integrating with international economic and security structures—ostensibly, at least. But its awareness of the rules of the game being shaped by western powers—specifically the US—and its conviction that the game was rigged have never flagged. In recent years, it has attempted to change the contours of those structures through initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. But if it disregards the rulings now, made under the aegis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to which it is a signatory, it will step outside the bounds of the international order entirely. This would be a dangerous precedent for the US’ potential successor to set.

China’s problem with the rule of law

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