A little-known court in the Netherlands rattled Asia this week. The Permanent Court of Arbitration concluded that China has no legal basis for its expansive claims in the South China Sea, where China has been attempting to intimidate its neighbors into conceding their rights.
While the overlapping claims are devilishly complicated, the main point is that China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have competing claims in the South China Sea. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (to which all except Taiwan are parties) permits national sovereignty in waters out to 12 nautical miles and exclusive economic rights out 200 nautical miles. All of the countries want to maximize their hold over gas and mineral deposits, as well as protect their national sovereignty. China is alone in making claims far in excess of the treaty standards, opposing international arbitration, advancing its claims by force and using civilian fishing fleets as military tools.
Although the court has declared China in violation of its international obligations, it has no means to enforce such a decision. China refused to participate in the legal proceedings and, as expected, has denounced the court's verdict. What stands between China and its ambition is, therefore, the United States.
The U.S. has for decades upheld the terms of the Law of the Sea treaty, even though we are not party to it (the Senate never having taken it up). We have taken no position on countries' claims, other than that they should be resolved peacefully. We ensure freedom of navigation in Asia by routinely sailing our Navy through waters that China claims exclusive rights to. We conduct military exercises by ourselves and with allies to demonstrate both our willingness and our ability to defend the rules. We encourage cooperation among countries in the region, for example trying to get Japan and South Korea to settle historical grievances and work more closely together.
China's government argues the U.S. is using the treaty as a pretext for isolating China. In reality, China is isolating itself: The country's aggressiveness has strengthened America's alliance relationships across Asia, as countries seek a strong partner to balance against it.
What makes China's policy in the South and East China seas so curious is that it is so contrary to the government's description of its "peaceful rise." At the most recent meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — a regional organization not notable for taking tough, principled stands on security issues — the group issued a unanimous condemnation of China before governments got cold feet and retracted it. China's behavior is so egregious that other countries now blow up the country's vessels captured in their waters. It should worry China that so many nations overpowered by it militarily and linked to it economically are willing to challenge it.
In the aftermath of the court decision, China likely will test the U.S.' readiness to uphold the rules, creating military provocations that could escalate into war. It will redouble the use of civilian fishing fleets for military purposes and likely will try to intimidate Asian countries over which it has economic leverage. The government will argue that because the U.S. is not an Asian power, it should not be allowed to set the rules in Asia.
It is reasonable to ask why Americans should care about uninhabited rocks in the South China Sea. Would we really risk war over that? The answer is that war will become more likely if we do not run the risks of enforcing the rules that every country in Asia except China accepts.
If we allow China to strong-arm weaker states, an international order that has benefited us all will erode: Military conflict will become more likely as countries try to protect their waters from Chinese incursion, and trade will be pinched. (More than $5 trillion in trade is carried on ships through these waters annually). Countries such as Australia and Japan, on which the U.S. relies as partners in military operations around the world, will narrow their focus to more immediate regional concerns.
Only by keeping the steady course of enforcing the rules and supporting our allies can the U.S. forestall bad outcomes in Asia.
Kori Schake is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.