The Permanent Court of Arbitration is set to rule tomorrow on a case brought by the Philippine government over China’s attempts to claim almost the entire South China Sea as sovereign territory. Beijing has boycotted the tribunal and betting the odds are that the verdict will not be in China’s favor.
Whatever happens tomorrow at the tribunal, Chinese state media is going to claim victory. But within the walls of Zhongnanhai, there ought to be some soul searching. This assumes of course that anyone who works in Zhongnanhai still has something approaching a soul.
Should the tribunal rule against the PRC — as it is expected to — and if the Chinese government chooses to use the tribunal’s ruling to, for example, wipe the ass of the nearest stray dog — as they will almost certainly want to do — the repercussions will ripple far past the rocks and reefs of the South China Sea.
Internationally, China has worked hard over the previous two decades to present itself as a good global citizen. As the US and their allies engage in what many around the world see as reckless military adventurism, China has positioned itself as a semi-sane alternative to the failed — and sometimes disastrous — policies of the West.
Choosing to ignore the tribunal’s ruling jeopardizes this concerted effort at image building. The Chinese media can complain about how the US especially routinely ignores these sorts of hearings and decisions, but if the Chinese government is serious about being the voice of reason in a world gone mad they have to better than the US. Caesar’s wife must be above reproach. “You did it first” isn’t going to fly.
The second issue is domestic.The Chinese government wants to present every issue as China (and by extension, the rest of the world) versus the West. The Chinese media routinely demonizes the United States and the West for their actions around the world. Implicit in this coverage is the idea that most of the world — those countries who don’t burn summer palaces and invade Middle Eastern nations for sport — see China as the good guy in world affairs. It’s the US and their allies who are the odd ones out in the world. In some ways, that might be true. But it doesn’t mean that China’s neighbors see China as any less of the threat.
In the case of the South China Sea, Beijing is opposed by countries, like the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam, who ought, by virtue of geography and a shared history as victims of colonialism, have common cause with China.
One reason the Chinese government has been so insistent on the US being the real impetus behind the decision to take the South China Sea case before the tribunal is that it helps soften an awkward truth: China isn’t as beloved around the world — and particularly in Asia — as the Chinese state media wants people to believe.
Talking with folks in Beijing, there is the persistent belief that the Philippines and the other countries opposed to China’s territorial grab in the South China Sea are being hoodwinked into becoming the pawns of the usual suspects: The United States and Japan.
The Chinese government has made the South China Sea a core strategic interest. But one wonders if Chinese leaders have thought through the downfield implications of digging in on this issue. Maybe they have and have decided that they are fresh out of fucks to give about what Vietnam thinks of them.
The callous cynic in me might suggest that while China’s actions in the South China Sea represent a challenge to America’s leadership and strategic position in the Western Pacific, Beijing’s refusal to accept the tribunal’s decision could be seen as an opportunity to undermine some of the gains China has made in global public opinion over the past two decades.