China’s rejection last week of the arbitral tribunal’s decision concerning sovereignty of the South China Sea should not surprise us. The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague rejected China’s historical claim to sovereignty over a vast swath of the Pacific Ocean from the Malacca to the Taiwan Straits.
China refused to participate in the arbitration proceedings, which were initiated unilaterally by the Philippines. Chinese president, Xi Jinping called the decision “null and void,” but said that China nonetheless remains committed to resolving the dispute through direct negotiations amongst all nations concerned. The tribunal said that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights and had caused “harm to the coral reef environment” by building artificial islands.
All along, China has contended that the islands of the South China Sea have been part of Chinese territory since ancient times and also that China reserves the right to set up air Defense (ADIZ) or “no fly” zones in the region to protect national security.
The Chinese Foreign ministry said the tribunal’s decision is “null and void” with “no binding force”. While the decision is considered legally binding, there is indeed no mechanism to enforce it. It now appears as though the future U.S. approach to China, if it is to be fruitful, may have to change—from one being based on a policy of isolating and containing China, a policy which has not had the anticipated results, to one based on engaging with China more directly by building on bilateral cooperation in matters of mutual interest.