Last month, China showed its cooperative side to the international community. It struck an ambitious climate deal with the U.S. that President Xi Jinping announced alongside President Obama. It took a seat at the P5+1 talks in Vienna to negotiate a path forward for Iran’s nuclear program. And it responded to the United Nation’s call for aid to Ebola-ravaged West Africa by sending an elite unit of People’s Liberation Army troops and aid workers. “That’s global leadership, and that’s important, and that cooperation with us is more than welcome,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in early November of China’s increasing role in international crises.
But this doesn’t mean China’s buying fully into the West’s international order. This week, the country ignored a deadline to submit a response to a case filed by the Philippines in international court that contested Beijing’s broad territorial claims in the South China Sea. For decades, China has staked out a huge swatch of the valuable seascape, ignoring the territorial claims of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. In March, fed up with stalled negotiations and fishing boat scuffles, the Philippines filed a 4,000-page memo to the U.N. requesting arbitration of the contested territory. Beijing had until Monday to submit a response in The Hague, and by refusing to do so it scuttled the potential for international arbitration of the conflict.
The missed deadline was not a surprise. On December 7, Beijing issued a position paper that denied the international court’s legitimacy in arbitrating the disagreement. China argued that a series of agreements dating back to 1995 bound Manila to engaging in bilateral negotiations to solve the dispute, and that finding alternative solutions—even almost 20 years later—was impermissible. At a press conference on Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qin Gang elaborated, “The Chinese side specifies in the position paper that it will neither accept nor participate in the so-called South China Sea arbitration unilaterally initiated by the Philippines, and that the arbitral tribunal does not have jurisdiction over this case.”