South China Sea Dispute: Legal Rulings may lead to armed conflict

As mentioned before on this site, China is an increasingly aggressive actor and the overlapping claims in the South China Sea is the People’s Republic’s main avenue for expansion. The government of the Philippines brought their case against China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, and three weeks ago the tribunal ruled heavily in favor of the Philippines. Today however, China’s Supreme People’s Court issued a statement reaffirming its judicial power over the disputed waters and ruled that the government of the PRC had a legal right to arrest and prosecute those “illegally entering Chinese waters”. This would be in direct violation of the ruling from The Hague and thus in violation of international law. China, it seems, feels confident enough to blatantly break international law and disregard treaties it has signed. This sets up a dangerous precedent for the region.

It is important to remember that The Hague ruling has no method of enforcement. It is up to the nations involved to respect and follow the ruling. China today firmly stated that it will not abide by the ruling, leaving the Philippines and other involved nations in the difficult position of trying to enforce the ruling themselves. If China really commits itself to arresting and prosecuting everyone it feels should not be operating in the South China Sea, the likelihood of armed stand-offs between Chinese and the other regional states’ navies and coast guards increases dramatically. The ruling from The Hague, without an independent means of enforcement, seems doomed to serve nothing but to further escalate an already dangerous situation. The only other real option for enforcement is to impose sanctions on China, but given the role China plays in generating global economic growth sanctions are highly unlikely. Sanctions would definitely lead to slower growth and thus increased unrest in the region, while armed stand-offs are not guaranteed to lead to war. That is, so long as no one actually pulls the trigger.


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