The Hague’s ruling was unfavorable to China’s claim in the South China Sea. But China never recognized the court’s jurisdiction and did not send a legal team to defend itself when this all started four years ago.
In previous posts, I have argued in favor of maintaining a Chinese claim going back thousands of years, a claim made by a “civilization-state,” over a claim by the Philippines going back 70 years at the most.
And the Philippines (as much as I like the place), is not truly a “nation-state” but rather a “state-nation.” Its government was created first and foremost as a colonial structure – unlike, for example, that of Thailand. The Philippines was a decentralized island culture until it was ruled by Spain, the United States, and Japan, gaining some sovereignty in 1945.
The Hague presupposed sovereign equality between China and the Philippines, but the Philippines is politically and militarily contextualized by the United States. At The Hague, the Filipino legal case was represented by a legal team from Washington DC!
Having foreign attorneys represent one’s country is a disgrace and calls into question the Philippines’ capacity to even make a national claim without being manipulated from abroad.
Fortunately, President Dutarte, brand new, will probably not be a puppet. His foreign policy will be a bit more unpredictable, playing off the tensions in this new Cold War.
Where does Chinese policy go from here? If China capitulates and submits to every aspect of The Hague’s ruling, then it will be seen as weak. But if China pretends like the ruling never happened, and continues its build-up in the South China Sea regardless, then China will alienate several important Southeast Asian countries (ASEAN). And ideally for China, those countries are needed for China’s “One Belt, One Road” policy of economic cooperation.
I predict China will adopt more creative alternatives than capitulation or assertion. China might, for example, offer the Philippines and other countries 99-year agreements that place sovereignty issues on the back burner while they pursue joint ventures. There is some precedent for ambiguous sovereignty in Asia, with the British in Hong Kong.
I also predict that China will resolve these questions in bilateral fashion with the counties involved and not with ASEAN as a bloc. After all, ASEAN is a bit of a farce, and there is little real integration among these countries. East Asian geo-politics is based on the American “hub-and-spoke” system, with the US as the “hub” and Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines as “spokes.”
China will have to offer economic inducements and even assist in human security questions, for each of the countries involved, in order that these countries would pivot away from the declining empire of Washington. It should not be difficult. Western-led globalization has done little to alleviate poverty in Southeast Asia. The large slums of Manila and other ASEAN megacities testify to that.
China can be faulted for waiting until The Hague produced its predictable ruling, and for not thinking and acting creatively sooner.
Unless China changes the entire context of East Asia (economic, geo-political) it will remain just another challenger, playing by the rules laid down by foreign powers.
China can also be faulted for developing a schizophrenic relationship with western globalization. China complains about American military encirclement, and about western intervention in the Middle East, but yet China (now a WTO member) is planning on having the RMB become part of a global currency: the Special Drawing Rights, a scheme hatched by the World Bank in Washington.
China is allowing itself to be significantly assimilated into systems that ultimately buttress western power – and yet it periodically objects to this or that.
Personally, I would prefer to witness a multipolar Asia with Chinese civilization as the natural center of gravity. China pulled 600 million people from poverty into the middle class in a generation. The speed and quality of its urbanization suggests that China is best equipped to lead the development of Asian infrastructure, even into space.
However, this Chinese leadership will require not just competence but also imagination. China can certainly do it, but first China must think outside the box.