On Tuesday, July 12th, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at the Hague released its ruling regarding China’s activities in the South China Sea. The verdict was a sweeping victory for the Philippines, which had brought the case to the international court. The tribunal rejected China’s historical territorial claims in the South China Sea, and declared that China had violated international law and the Philippines’ sovereign rights within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). China has long announced its intent to ignore the verdict when it came, and refused to participate in the arbitration process all together. China’s decision to refuse to recognize the legitimacy of international courts at its convenience follows a “well-established precedent by great powers,” wrote Graham Allison, director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Citing the recent arbitration case of Russia’s detainment of the Dutch vessel Arctic Sunrise, the U.K’s unlawful establishment of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the Chagos Islands, and the U.S.’s illegal support of Nicaraguan rebels in the 1980s, he argued that “none of the five members of the UN Security Council have ever accepted any international court’s ruling when (in their view) it infringed their sovereignty or national security interests.”[1] China’s decision to ignore the South China Sea ruling is only the latest in a long series of decisions by powerful countries to ignore international law at their whim.


The U.S. has steadfastly called for China to adhere and submit to the jurisdiction of international law, despite the fact it that remains one of the only countries to have not ratified the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea. This fact is seen as hypocritical by China, states M. Taylor Fravel, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It creates a perception in Chinese eyes that U.S. actions are not about upholding international law,” he argued, “but in fact, a much broader geopolitical power, political agenda that the U.S. might have to contain China.”[2] Managing the U.S. response to China’s decision will no doubt prove to be a tricky balancing act. Ruth Wedgewood, professor of international law at Johns Hopkins University, predicted a “very cautious” American response. She stated that it remains crucial for the U.S. to maintain the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, but also warned that “it’d be bad for both economies to have any prideful claim over who owns the farm to interfere with what has been a very productive economic relationship.”[3] Ben Cardin, the U.S. senator from Maryland, argued that the U.S. should use the South China Sea decision as an impetus to finally ratify the UNCLOS. He states that “Our failure to ratify the treaty also undermines our ability to work with our allies and partners in the South China Sea region.”[4] Ultimately, he argues, the U.S. has crucial stakes in the South China Sea and ratifying the UNCLOS would prove to be an important step in “the development of functional problem-solving architecture and rules-based norms in the Asia-Pacific region, and in its regional diplomacy.”


Other U.S. experts have regarded the verdict with a mixture of caution and fear for China’s response. Jennifer Harris, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that the Hague decision will do little to curb China’s “belligerence”. She states that the U.S. needs to find ways of “raising the costs to China of its growing bellicosity, of reducing asymmetrical economic dependence on China and of building adequate defenses against Chinese economic bullying.” [5] Rather than counterbalancing China through military might, she advocates the need to grow a strong economic alliance in the Asia-Pacific region. Andrew S. Erickson, Professor of Strategy at the U.S. Naval War Institute’s China Maritime Institute, advocated that “all parties concerned must remain vigilant and prevent China from destabilizing a vital yet vulnerable region that remains haunted by history; or, worse still, from grabbing with coercion or force what it could not – and now clearly cannot – obtain legally.”[6] Allen Carlson, Associate Professor at Cornell University’s Department of Government, has written that “it is fair to expect greater Chinese assertiveness” as it prepares to develop a ‘new game plan’ in the South China Sea. He writes that “the real danger of escalation” will come when China’s moves force the hand of the other claimants in the waters, and “drag the U.S. deeper into the conflict there.”[7]



[1] http://thediplomat.com/2016/07/of-course-china-like-all-great-powers-will-ignore-an-international-legal-verdict/

[2] http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2016/07/13/485753054/will-hague-tribunals-south-china-sea-ruling-inflame-u-s-china-tensions

[3] http://www.npr.org/2016/07/12/485740544/chinas-claims-to-south-china-sea-represent-a-fight-over-pride

[4] http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/07/13/the-south-china-sea-is-the-reason-the-united-states-must-ratify-unclos/

[5] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jennifer-m-harris/south-china-sea-ruling_b_10941176.html?1468414578

[6] https://www.chinafile.com/conversation/chinas-claims-south-china-sea-rejected

[7] https://www.chinafile.com/conversation/chinas-claims-south-china-sea-rejected