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Herb London: America Must Watch The Chinese Tiger

In the wake of a decision by the Permanent Court of International Arbitration that there isn’t any legal basis for China’s claim to territory in the so-called “nine-dash line” (an area which covers most of the South China Sea), the Chinese National Defense Ministry said “China’s armed forces would firmly safeguard national sovereignty, security and maritime interests and rights, firmly uphold regional peace and stability, and deal with all kinds of threats and challenges.”

In other words, the Defense Ministry is defying the judgment and in the process, making it clear that the unilaterally created air perimeter zone in the South China Sea is part of China and will remain so, despite the legitimate claim of the Philippines. Once China claims a territory as sovereign Chinese territory, its criminal law mandates that the claim is defended and never surrendered. This includes the artificial reefs built to accommodate Chinese fighter jets, notwithstanding the fact China will not refer to these artificial islands as military installations.

The Permanent Court found that China’s holdings in several of the Spratly islands do not warrant a 200 mile exclusive economic zone, a zone that violates the sovereign rights of other countries and the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Chinese officials responded to the judgment by saying, “it has no binding force” and is “null and void.”

Clearly, the court statement refutes President Xi’s policies of “good neighborliness.” In fact, it is easy to arrive at the conclusion The Hague Court considers China a rogue state violating international accords. Opposition to China will be mobilized in the region. United Nations’ sanctions may be put in place. Joint statements from the Filipino and Japanese presidents condemning Chinese lawlessness may be made. But, alas, what difference will it make if the United States stands on the sidelines suggesting this matter is none of our business.

The U.S. is the only nation with the naval assets to challenge Chinese regional hegemony. Only the U.S. can mobilize an Asian force to thwart Chinese ambitions. President Obama has said repeatedly that these claims in the South China Sea should be resolved through negotiation. Well, a judgment has been rendered and Asian leaders are asking how will that decision be defended.

Despite the fact President Obama does not regard this matter as a vital interest of the U.S., there has been some buildup of our forces in the region. Whether that has been enough to get the attention of Chinese leadership is another matter. The Chinese Defense Ministry has dug in its heals. Considering their level of interest and the proximity of the islands to China, the U.S. will probably blink first.

Even those states that have legitimate claims in the South China Sea (Japan, Vietnam, Philippines) will weigh those claims against economic interests with China. In rhetoric designed to lower the rising temperature on the issue, the Philippine president issued a statement carefully constructed to avoid offending President Xi.

The shifting sands of international affairs have inextricably highlighted the effect of a United States in retreat. Chinese leaders understand this posture and, as a result, are increasingly aggressive and adamant. China’s lawless claims will, in time, be accepted, even by those states whose interests are adversely affected. In international affairs, the assertion of power speaks far more forcefully than a court decision.

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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