Last Tuesday in the hotly contested South China Sea (SCS), ignoring fierce objections coming from China, the American guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen cruised within 12 nautical miles of Subi and Mischief Reefs. One day later, in The Hague, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled unanimously that it does have jurisdiction over a “suit” brought by the Philippines against China regarding China’s claims in the SCS. The court must now approve or reject Manila’s position that Beijing’s (in)famous “nine-dash line” (actually now a ten-dash line) is incompatible with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea—that the line is, in effect, illegal under international law. The court must also adjudicate Manila’s additional request for rulings on the status of certain land features in the SCS that are controlled by Beijing. Beijing’s efforts to prevent the maritime penetration and the judicial judgment have failed.
Will these events be remembered as having marked the start of a Sino-American Cold War II? What do they imply for China’s relations with the five other parties that claim land features and/or sea space there, i.e. Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam? Was the US wrong to have breached China’s red lines and the court also wrong to have accepted jurisdiction? Why? Why not? And how will these events impact the imminent Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit and Related Summits, as well as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders Meeting—gatherings to be held, respectively, in Kuala Lumpur and Manila between 18 and 22 November?
Donald K. Emmerson is a Senior Fellow Emeritus in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI). At Stanford he also works with the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law and the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies. His latest writing on the SCS is “Reading between the Lines: China & the South China Sea,” CSIS cogitASIA [Washington, DC], 21 July 2015, http://cogitasia.com/reading-between-the-lines-china-the-south-china-sea/. Before coming to Stanford, he taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His degrees are from Yale (Phd) and Princeton (BA).