The People's Republic has now been found to be in violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) by an international arbitration tribunal. Overall, the arbitration was a win for the Philippines - a close US ally - and a loss for China. In particular, the tribunal quite scathingly castigated China for building "reclaimed islands" in the South China Sea, which it said showed disregard for the rights of fishermen and for the local marine ecology. This was strictly within its remit; the question of national claims on who owns islands is not. But even this is too much for Beijing, which refused to accept the tribunal's right to adjudicate - even though, as a signatory to the UNCLOS, it is supposed to accept dispute settlement by it.
So, you ask, what's new? Is this not merely another example of a great power ignoring the rules and doing as it sees fit? Not quite. The difference with the United States - a genuinely strong country - is instructive. The US is under no obligation to obey the UNCLOS, because it hasn't ratified it. So if it chooses to "uphold" the UNCLOS in principle, it retains the superpower's right to ignore the law when its national interests are threatened. Its inconsistency would be entirely consistent.
China, on the other hand, as a formerly weak country, signed up to the UNCLOS. But it now wants the strong country's prerogatives - namely to do whatever it wants. And further, it wants and needs extra - to actually be inconsistent, to sign something and then declare it does not apply.
This dispute is significant for us because it goes way beyond the militarization of the South China Sea. It's significant because it shows us in India exactly what the odds against the "peaceful rise" of China are. It shows that Beijing will continually be bumping up against constraints it put on itself voluntarily when it was weak. And, of course, while strong in certain areas - say in force projection over the South China Sea - it is weak in others - say in other seas, named for other countries, on which it might increasingly rely for trade. In those places, it may still need UNCLOS, although it would want to ignore it the law in its immediate neighborhood.
This matters to India on several levels. For one, it reveals what actually lies behind the recent Chinese refusal to "bend the rules" for India at the Nuclear Suppliers Group, or NSG. India has an excellent record on preventing nuclear proliferation in spite of not being a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty or NPT. What it sought from the NSG - and let's forget for the moment whether or not it was wise - was recognition that it should now be brought into the nuclear architecture as a strong rather than a weak country. China, instead, insisted that India must follow "the rules".
In short, China said to India: "Don't imagine you're strong. You're weak. Play by the rules." And now, China is saying to the world, over the South China Sea: "Don't imagine I'm weak. I'm strong. I don't need your rules."
In its response, India has steered a comfortable middle path. It has insisted that the South China Sea remain freely navigable, and that all disputes should be settled without the use of force. It has resisted the temptation to pay back China for its obstruction at the NSG; it has also resisted the temptation to be reflexively anti-West.
An additional sentence that calls for "self-restraint" in such disputes is delightfully diplomatic, since the US can point to it as saying that India criticizes China's habit of building islands all over the place, and China can point to it as saying that India agrees that the Philippines going to arbitration was "complicating and escalating" the issue.
Indeed, the Chinese regularly and entertainingly issue maps and statements indicating which countries have "supported" it in its positions. It originally claimed that 60 countries were behind it in rejecting arbitration, which the Wall Street Journal thoroughly debunked by looking at each actual statement by those countries. And that short list of China's all-weather friends wasn't too impressive either: Afghanistan, the Gambia (which only gave diplomatic recognition to the People's Republic this March), Kenya, Niger, Sudan, Lesotho, Togo, Vanuatu. I mean, if you can't even get Pakistan on-side for this...
But this desperation to show you're not standing alone is revealing too. China is not yet secure in its strength. It may wish to behave like a strong power, but it still has the instincts of the weak, unable to simply say "This is what I will do, regardless of what the world thinks." There is a schizophrenia here that may get us all into trouble - but which India could well take advantage of, as well.
India has a vast stake in enabling China's peaceful rise. Mainly because if it is not peaceful, we're going to be at the receiving end of some of that lack of peace at some point. But most of all, it has a stake in ensuring that the transition from weak to strong is something that is accomplished with the minimum of fuss, and the minimum of damage to those aspects of international law that actually work well.
Why? Because the transition from weak to strong that the People's Republic is going through today is what we will, a few decades from now, be dealing with ourselves. (A transition in which a newly-strong Beijing will not be a support and a help, apparently.) Our demands over the NSG were just the beginning; eventually the world system will have to accommodate us just the way it is having to accommodate China. And it will be tougher, since India was not already given a privileged position in the post-World War II order, as China was.
In other words, this episode throws into sharp relief the balance we have to maintain: a balance between our need to see China properly constrained and our expectation that the international order retains enough flexibility to make way for newly strong countries. China, they say, plays a long game. India will have to play one longer still.
(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)
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