Reporter's Notebook

Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea
Show Description +

Our latest coverage on the tensions among China, the United States, and other powers over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Show None Newer Notes

When Does a Reef Become an Island, and Other Mysteries of the South China Sea

For anyone following the action in the South China Sea, as laid out in the previous posts collected in this Thread, I highly recommend a post at the LawFareBlog on the fine points of the dispute. It’s by Adam Klein and Mira Rapp-Hooper, and it carefully delineates the differing claims that China, the United States, and other countries are making about the rocks/islands/reefs/airstrips in the South China Sea — and the differing ways in which U.S. Navy ships passing through this area can establish freedom-of-navigation principles.

The whole thing is closely argued and worth reading. Here is the payoff point on what they recommend as the highest-payoff approach with the least gratuitous provocation:

The state-controlled People’s Daily responds to the international court ruling.

The ruling this morning by Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in favor of the Philippines, and very strongly against China in their dispute over the South China Sea, was not surprising in its basic result. Most people following the issue had expected that China’s very sweeping claims would not hold up.

The foreseeability of that outcome is precisely why the Chinese government has preemptively been pooh-poohing the court and its legitimacy over the past few weeks, and lining up a ragtag set of allies to support its cause. This group includes none of the countries most affected by China’s expanded maritime activities, and it features those reliant on Chinese aid or trade. (Eg Cambodia, Liberia, Senegal, etc.)

But the sternness of the ruling, and its explicit criticism of the basic premises of China’s arguments, was more than most people expected. For the moment this is a placeholder note on ways to learn more about the ruling, its consequences, and China’s dismissive initial response:

  • Andrew Erickson, of the Naval War College, has been on this subject for a long time. You can read his initial assessment here, with links to related items.
  • ChinaFile has kicked off a conversation today with Erickson and a number of other China luminaries, which is very much worth reading. Sample from Peter Dutton, also of the Naval War College:
    “This decision is much more than a pyrrhic victory for the Philippines as some will be tempted to suggest. This opinion will have normative power that over the long run will and should affect the way every state thinks about the South China Sea in the future. Ultimately, the ruling’s power is not in its direct enforceability, but in the way it will inevitably alter perceptions about right and wrong actions in the South China Sea. Coercion will no longer stand with moral impunity. Even if indirectly, the opinion should therefore serve as the basis for improved bilateral negotiations in the future. It has significantly narrowed the scope of what is in reasonable and justifiable dispute and therefore should help the parties move closer to a final resolution of their differences.”
  • At the Lawfare site, Julian Ku of Hofstra offers his quick take. Sample:
    “Is it possible to win by too much? The complete and sweeping nature of the Philippines legal victory may make it harder for China to agree to any negotiations that do not exclude the award’s effects as a precondition. This could be a problem going forward.”
  • The Interpreter, an always-valuable international-affairs site from the Lowy Institute in Sydney, has not yet analyzed the ruling itself (time zones etc). But yesterday it had this preview article, about expected results of the ruling, by Derek Lundy.
  • One-time guest blogger Brian Glucroft has a roundup of the China-based reactions. The Shanghaiist similarly reports on China’s “we are not amused” response. Also see Quartz’s report on China’s preemptive criticism of the court.
  • Also see previous items in this thread for background on the controversy.