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The G7 and the South China Sea

David A. Welch
Balsillie School of International Affairs and Centre for International Governance Innovation
May 26, 2016

In their Statement on Maritime Security, issued in Hiroshima on April 11, the G7 foreign ministers strongly affirmed their collective commitment to "a maritime order based upon the universally recognized principles of international law, including those reflected in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)." Indications are that the final Ise-Shima Summit communiqué will include equally strong language — as it should. With one caveat.

It took no special skill to decode the Hiroshima Statement as a critique of China, whose recent assertive behaviour in the East and South China Seas has rattled regional nerves. Summit host Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, has minced no words expressing his disapproval, and clearly wants his fellow summiteers to follow suit. China promptly declared the Hiroshima statement "irresponsible" and essentially called upon the G7 to butt out. It will no doubt interpret a reiteration of the statement in the final communiqué as a provocative slap in the face.

Tensions are running particularly high on the subject not only because China has nearly completed seven artificial islands in the South China Sea that will give them the capacity to project military power deep into the region, but because a tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague will shortly hand down its decision in a case the Philippines brought against China that is widely expected to rule in Manila's favour on important points. Although the judgement will almost certainly clear up some important legal ambiguities, it will also almost certainly infuriate China. What China does in response will have important consequences.

Beijing's predicament is that it has encouraged — or at least not restrained — an expansive interpretation of its claims in the region. While China has never officially declared the entire South China Sea to be a Chinese lake, it regularly asserts "indisputable sovereignty" and the so-called Nine-Dashed Line that it uses on maps and passports has given this impression. The Philippines arbitration tribunal will almost certainly find that the Nine-Dashed Line has no legal status, and will also very likely classify certain disputed features to be "low-tide elevations" (LTEs) under UNCLOS Article 13 bestowing neither exclusive economic zones nor continental shelves. The tribunal will avoid speaking to questions of sovereignty, but declaring certain reefs to be LTEs will undermine the expansive interpretation of Chinese rights that the people of China have internalized.

China ratified UNCLOS in 1996, and is thereby legally bound by the tribunal's decision despite Beijing's statements to the contrary. It will therefore be pinned on the horns of a trilemma.

One option is to retracting its objections to the tribunal's jurisdiction and accept the outcome. This would be the G7's dream scenario, but it is very unlikely quite simply because the Chinese people would interpret it as a humiliating climbdown and a failure to defend what the government itself has called China's "indisputable" sovereign rights. It is not clear that the regime could survive such a blow to its credibility and prestige.

A second option would be to withdraw from UNCLOS. This would be psychologically gratifying to outraged nationalists at home, but would mortally wound China's international standing and undercut the credibility of its other international commitments.

A third option—and the most likely—is that China would double down on its current course of action. This would prevent an adverse domestic reaction but would heighten regional tensions and feed fears of Chinese intentions. None of this would work to China's advantage. Not only would it add stimulus to the balancing behaviour we have been witnessing, it would also put China on its back foot in the next stage of the dispute, in which attention will shift from who owns what to who does and does not play by the rules.

While China's initial reaction to the tribunal's likely judgement will almost certainly be an escalating commitment to its current course of action, G7 leaders can help pave the way for China's eventual acceptance of the outcome by avoiding, and encouraging others also to avoid, triumphing at China's expense. The final communiqué should and almost certainly will include language signalling the leaders' strong commitment to the rule of law, but it should also include strongly positive language about China's importance and value as a partner in building and maintaining international order. It will take time for cooler heads to prevail, but G7 leaders should do everything they can now to speed the process and help China understand that even an adverse ruling in the Hague, by clarifying the rules of the road in an area both congested and contested, will serve China's interests in the long run as well as everyone else's.

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David WelchDavid A. Welch is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, the CIGI Chair of Global Security at the Balsillie School of International Affairs and and a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo. His 2005 book, Painful Choices: A Theory of Foreign Policy Change (Princeton University Press), is the inaugural winner of the International Studies Association International Security Studies Section (ISSS) Book Award for the best book published in 2005 or 2006, and his 1993 book, Justice and the Genesis of War (Cambridge University Press), is the winner of the 1994 Edgar S. Furniss Award for an Outstanding Contribution to National Security Studies. Follow him at @davidawelch.

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