An international tribunal declaring that China has no “historic rights” in the South China Sea. The ruling came from a case brought by the the Philippines, which started the proceedings following Chinese encroachment on the Spratly island chain just off the their main islands. The court also found China responsible for disrupting Philippine economic activity like oil exploration and fishing within their exclusive economic zone
China claims something called the “9-dash line,” a territorial demarcation that includes 85 percent of entire South China Sea. China has not only claimed almost the entire sea, but has been actively taking steps to militarize the area and stake it’s claim to the sea. This has consisted of building artificial islands as bases for aircraft and missile systems, running coast guard patrols, and allowing it’s fishermen to use the waters.
China has made it clear that it will not back down. Despite losing the arbitration, China immediately reject the ruling as “Null, Void (sic) No Binding Force.” A day later, China released a white paper, which consisted of a nearly 150 paragraph (all numbered) counter argument reiterating China’s historical claims to the sea and blaming the Philippines for aggravating the situation.
Given this response, it’s likely China’s aggressive actions in the sea will become more frequent. If it cannot get international support for it’s claims, it’s other options are aggression or more encroachment. Future actions might include the creation of an air defense identification zone (which China has already hinted at) and the construction of more artificial islands to tighten it’s grip on the region.
Although this ruling is a clear victory for the liberal world order, it will undoubtedly set Asia on a path to conflict and possibly war. As China continues to assert it’s claims tensions will continue to rise. The creation of an ADIZ in particular, would be incredibly destabilizing. It would set up a dynamic where China might attempt to not only intercept planes over their artificial islands but could lock down airspace over the entire sea.
This would greatly escalate tensions, not only between China and it’s neighbors, but with the U.S as well. An ADIZ would make it difficult, if not impossible for American aircraft carriers and air assets to operate in the South China Sea. U.S patrols and freedom of navigation exercises would become much more dangerous, with the risk of an incident significantly increased.
Given the risks, it’s important to put this conflict in perspective. Ever since the end of the the Second World War the United States has aggressively pursued policies consistent with a stable, liberal and capitalist world order. These include freedom of trade, freedom navigation and an end to right of conquest. China’s unilateral claims to the South China Sea are the antithesis of these goals.
While there have been reports that the US is trying to ease tensions, the creation of an ADIZ may force American action. The United States cannot back down. No matter what China’s provocation, far too much much blood and treasure has been spent building today’s world order to allow China to rip it apart in the South China Sea.