As the coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, China is taking advantage of the chaos and the preoccupation of governments with battling the pandemic. Beijing has long been opportunistic, so it is using what it sees as a unique confluence of circumstances to strengthen its strategic, geopolitical and military position. This is being done in a number of ways — using soft and hard power — by delivering personal protective equipment (PPE) throughout the world, increasing its foreign aid, rejiggering the Belt and Road Initiative and reinforcing its militarization of the South China Sea.
Beijing Wants to Rewrite the Global Rulebook
For years, the Chinese government has argued that its “nine-dash line” of sovereignty over the entire sea is based on centuries of maritime history and that China’s claim is airtight. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has even asserted that ample historical documents and literature demonstrate that China was “the first country to discover, name, develop and exercise continuous and effective jurisdiction over the South China Sea islands.”
The truth is somewhat different, however. As veteran journalist Bill Hayton notes in the book, “The South China Sea,” the first Chinese official ever to set foot on one of the Spratly Islands was a nationalist naval officer in 1946, the year after Japan’s defeat in World War II and its own loss of control of the sea. He did so from an American ship crewed by Chinese sailors who were trained in Miami.
As for the story of the nine-dash line, it began a decade earlier through a Chinese government naming commission. China was not even the first to name the islands; the naming commission borrowed and translated wholesale from British charts and pilots. It is unclear how the Chinese government transformed all of this into a bill of goods it has sold to the Chinese people, but by now it is a source of national pride, however misplaced it may be.
Yet the Chinese government and its people have backed themselves into a corner. In 2016, an international tribunal in The Hague ruled that there is no legal basis for China’s claim over the islands. Meanwhile, Beijing has failed to produce evidence of its declaration to back up its version of the facts. Despite this, the Chinese have been drinking the nine-dash line Kool-Aid for so long that national pride will not allow them to admit that what the government is doing in the South China Sea is illegal under international maritime law — the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas. Ironically, China subscribed to the convention on the very day in 1982 when it first became a legal instrument.
The Chinese government has not personified the rule of law in this case — or in others related to maritime borders — and wants to be able to cherry-pick which provisions of international treaties it will comply with. That is behavior unbecoming of a rising global power and will make states which are signatories to treaties with China wonder if its signature is worth the paper it is printed on. This cannot be in China’s long-term interest.
The Chinese government views America’s recent naval exercises in the South China Sea as illegal and merely serving to aggravate tensions between the two countries. Washington has maintained for many years that China has no legal basis upon which to continue to assert its maritime claim over the islands, shoals or reefs of the South China Sea. The nations of Asia, and the rest of the world, agree with the US position. The question is: Will the world’s nations join America in publicly and consistently opposing Beijing’s continued illegal actions in the region?
Who Will Speak Up?
That seems unlikely. Given Beijing’s recent propensity to practice wolf diplomacy by swiftly and harshly responding to any criticism of its actions, most Asian countries are likely to remain silent. Australia, Japan and South Korea are possible exceptions to that from a military perspective, but given that they have been content to cede that role to America, not much is likely to change in the near future. Australia is already reeling from a healthy dose of wolf diplomacy, which has negatively impacted its bilateral trade with China.
Beijing has become accustomed to doing whatever it wants, with little consequence. The US, the countries of Asia and much of the rest of the world remained largely silent when Beijing was expropriating and militarizing the Spratly and Paracel Islands. That was a grave error. Now, most governments see little point in objecting to what is, in essence, a fait accompli. Now, short of going to war, China’s militarization of the South China Sea is a reality the world is simply going to have to live with.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.