By Austin Bay
On July 12, 2016, The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that China had systematically violated essential provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or the UNCLOS, at the expense of the Philippines. China’s violations included stealing resources from Manila’s maritime Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, and illegally encroaching on Filipino territory in the South China Sea, or SCS.
UNCLOS codifies the geophysical conditions and legal precedents establishing sovereign control of territorial waters and rights in EEZs. It is dedicated to preventing and peacefully resolving disputes involving billions of dollars of maritime resources.
In blunt language, the Court concluded China’s communist government had robbed the Philippines and launched a slow, calculated and highly illegal invasion of the SCS. The ruling dismissed Beijing’s ridiculous “Nine-Dash Line” claim to own roughly 85 percent of the SCS’ 2.2 million square miles.
Between 2013, when Manila filed the complaint, and the 2016 Court decision, I wrote three columns addressing the complaint’s strategic implications. Since 2016, the decision has figured in 11 columns, including several on Hong Kong.
Why? Because the Court’s ruling exposes the Chinese Communist Party’s multidimensional imperialist expansion strategy and aggression as it occurred from the late 1990s through 2016.
The ruling documented the CCP’s utter disregard for international treaties and civilized diplomacy when they challenge CCP policy actions. China signed and then broke the UNCLOS treaty. China signed and then broke the Sino-British Treaty of 1984, which guaranteed Hong Kong’s democratic autonomy through 2049.
The ruling illustrated how China targets and bullies its smaller neighbors. Beijing insists on “bilateral” one-on-one negotiation, betting Chinese military and economic muscle will dominate. The Philippines internationalized its dispute by going to the Court. Vietnam and Indonesia are reportedly considering similar UNCLOS lawsuits to address Chinese theft.
The ruling documented the fascist criminality of China’s slow SCS invasion. China employs construction barges and fishing boats as weapons. The barges pour concrete on reefs and sand bars, creating artificial islands. CCP propagandists then claim the fakes are Chinese territory, sovereign as Shanghai.
In the Filipino case, China turned three sea features, Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, and Fiery Cross Reef, into fake islands. The Court stated clearly China’s concrete knobs are not legally islands. Since the ruling, the U.S. military has started calling them fortified sea features.
China used its “sea militia” to invade Filipino territory. Here’s how that worked and continues to work in the EEZs of several Southeast Asian nations. Hundreds of Chinese fishing boats enter the smaller nation’s EEZ. Acting as a gray-zone warfare armada, they drive off local fishermen. China Coast Guard vessels arrive to protect the Chinese boats.
China’s response to the Court’s censure vacillates. It attempts to ignore it; it flaunts new violations. Chinese diplomats have criticized the ruling so fiercely their vehemence suggests someone in Beijing fears the decision. China has a face culture. Did the ruling deal the CCP and its president, Xi Jinping, a severe loss of face?
The ruling did not halt Chinese expansion and aggression strategy. China continues to claim the Nine-Dash Line boundary and has doubled down on weapons. The Subi and Mischief fortified sea features sport naval facilities, military airfields, and air defenses. Their anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles create an air-sea crossfire.
However, exposing the regime’s abuse of weaker neighbors has cost China diplomatically. The Filipino theft operation demolishes two key CCP propaganda narratives: that China is the leader of the developing world and is the champion of plurality by ending Western/American hegemony. I think the decision impeaches the CCP dictatorship’s claim to world leadership and its very legitimacy as a responsible governing body. Perhaps that’s what Xi fears.
Alas, the ruling also reveals the weakness of international law. Ultimately, navies enforce maritime law, not courts. The only navy in the western Pacific capable of deterring Chinese aggression flies the Stars and Stripes.
The Philippines recently reaffirmed its alliance with the Unites States. Apparently, superpower backup has value.
Austin Bay is a colonel (ret.) in the U.S. Army Reserve, author, syndicated columnist, and teacher of strategy and strategic theory at the University of Texas–Austin. His latest book is “Cocktails from Hell: Five Wars Shaping the 21st Century.”