At the turn of the 21st century, China explicitly promoted what it called its foreign policy of ‘peaceful ascendancy’. To quote Yoichi Funabashi in 2003:
“Chinese officials are now at pains to deny that they have any ambition to reign supreme again in Asia or destabilize the world economically, politically, or militarily. …. Chinese scholars and government officials are studying the lessons of history to avoid repeating the mistakes that led the USSR and the US into a protracted, dangerous Cold War. Choosing a path of ‘peaceful ascendancy’, China’s leaders are trying to wisely steer their country to greatness, not planning to make a brash play for power as some critics fear.”
On Tuesday the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague ruled that, with regard to the territorial dispute over the Spratley Islands in the South China Sea:
- There is no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the South China Sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’.
- Some areas of the Sea are within the EEZ of the Philippines; China has violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines there, by interfering with fishing and oil exploration, constructing artificial islands and failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing there.
- Chinese law enforcement vessels have “unlawfully created a serious risk of collision when they physically obstructed Philippine vessels”.
China indicated from the outset that it would not recognise the tribunal’s decision, and has called the ruling ‘null and void’.
The territorial dispute over the Spratleys was a valuable opportunity for China to demonstrate that it means what it said a decade ago. A foreign policy that rests on the premise of peaceful relations should dismiss the use of force in the pursuit of national interests and respect the rule of international law.
As it grows stronger economically, politically and militarily, China has often got it right on international relations in recent years, although like many other countries it still faces significant human rights issues.
But the fourth dimension of national greatness – moral strength – paradoxically requires self-restraint on the other three.
It is not too late to avoid an enduring strategic error. It is one thing for China to dismiss the PCA, a somewhat quaint institution dating from 1899 whose founding members were the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Japanese empires, and the Qing Dynasty.
But China could earn moral prestige, as important as anything else in global affairs, by announcing a readiness to develop a cooperative framework for joint exploration of the South China Sea with all its neighboring countries. It could be a leader.