Keeping Calm in the South China Sea

Those aren't islands.

Photographer: STR/AFP/Getty Images

China was widely expected to reject a ruling against its maritime claims in the South China Sea, and it didn’t disappoint. Declaring Tuesday’s 479-page decision “null and void,” China said it “neither accepts nor recognizes it.”

More important than what China says, however -- and Tuesday’s statement is more measured than last week’s, when Chinese leaders denounced the opinion in advance as “a piece of waste paper” -- is what China does. Its neighbors and the U.S. should make clear how dangerous and damaging a more aggressive response would be, even as they prepare for that possibility.

Territorial Disputes

The decision from a tribunal convened under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was sweeping, saying that China had no “historic rights” to much of the South China Sea. Judges also declared that none of the Chinese-controlled land features in the Spratly Islands chain could lay claim to a 200-mile exclusive economic zone. Instead several fall under the Philippines’ jurisdiction, and Chinese interference with the nation's fishing vessels in the area is illegal.

In response, China may be tempted to declare an air-defense identification zone over the disputed area, but that would only spur the U.S. and other nations to defy it. Withdrawing from the Law of the Sea treaty would strip China of valuable seabed mining rights, among other benefits. Meanwhile, reclaiming land around Scarborough Shoal, which lies less than 140 miles from the U.S.-allied Philippines, risks an American naval response.

It should be clear to China by now that bullying doesn’t work. Its threats and economic pressure have infuriated rather than cowed its Southeast Asian neighbors. None of them are about to surrender their claims in the region.

Rather than alienating its neighbors and driving them closer to the U.S., China should be looking for an off-ramp -- a way to pause in its activities and shift attention back to diplomacy. Stalled negotiations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations over a binding code of conduct offer just such an opportunity.

In contrast to leaders in Beijing, the new administration in the Philippines has greeted the ruling with welcome restraint, leaving the door open to talks about resource-sharing in the disputed area. China should be looking for a way to enter such negotiations without preconditions, rather than continuing to insist that the Philippines first set aside the ruling. Concluding long-running talks with Vietnam over their shared maritime boundary would earn Chinese leaders a degree of goodwill, as would efforts to rein in Chinese fishing fleets that have strayed into the waters of other nations, including Indonesia.

A change in tactics won’t alter China’s long-term plans to build up its navy or its desire to exert sway over the South China Sea, of course. Channeling those ambitions will require the kind of firmness and commitment to maintaining high-seas freedoms that the U.S. has demonstrated in recent months. U.S. Navy ships can now ratchet up the tempo of their “freedom of navigation” operations with the full force of law behind them. The U.S. should continue to strengthen military ties with countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia -- as well as India, Australia and Japan.

Domestically, the most productive U.S. response might be for Congress to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement before a new president is inaugurated -- making it clear that the U.S. has economic as well as strategic interests to defend in Asia. As unlikely as it seems, lawmakers should also reconsider their refusal to ratify the Law of the Sea treaty; joining would greatly enhance America’s credibility as a defender of the global system.

Arguments over Chinese actions in the western Pacific are certain to continue. Far better for everyone that they be waged in the courtroom, not at sea.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.