The surprising July 12 ruling by an international tribunal against Beijing's claims in the South China Sea was a vindication of long-standing U.S. policy on the disputed waters and went well beyond Washington's expectations. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague tribunal firmly rejected China's "nine-dash" line that marks its claim, stating it had no basis in law. The ruling provides support for the U.S. argument that all maritime disputes in Asia must be resolved multilaterally and peacefully. And it provides legal justification for freedom of navigation operations, whereby U.S. ships sail close to China's artificial islands.
But the scale of Bejing's legal defeat will undoubtedly lead to much anxiety and anger in China, and raises fears about what happens next. The Chinese government could respond by dramatically escalating its activities in the South China Sea, leading to a dangerous standoff with U.S. forces. With war raging in the Middle East, the European Union on the brink of a break-up, a persistent danger from Russia, and a spreading global terrorist threat, the last thing the U.S. needs right now is a real security crisis in the South China Sea.
It was no surprise, therefore, to see senior U.S. policymakers welcome the result but also stress that they would give China space to resist the temptation for an aggressive response. There was no spiking of the ball, as Americans describe over-the-top celebrations when a football team scores a touchdown. Washington will no doubt respond strongly to any new provocations by China, but it will be keen to avoid any perception that its own actions could be construed as provocative.
In the long run, however, the ruling will benefit the U.S. and its allies.
With its uncompromising but clear logic, the tribunal's decision provides an overarching rationale for U.S. strategy toward East Asia that revolves around upholding the rule of law. This rationale ensures that the U.S. stands for more than preserving and protecting its influence in the region. It is a guarantor of a rules-based order. The rule of law also appeals to other non-Asian nations, particularly in Europe. China's neighbors can now impress on the EU the importance of standing shoulder to shoulder on international law wherever it is challenged, be that in Eastern Europe or the South China Sea.
Of course, China will argue that the U.S. can be hypocritical on this matter. The U.S. has rejected the rulings of international courts before and it has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a 1982 treaty that sets out the rights and responsibilities that states enjoy on the oceans. But this rejoinder matters little. Law regarding territorial disputes and the acquisition of territory is at the heart of the international order. The July 12 ruling will have an enormous impact on how the rest of the world perceives problems in the South China Sea. It can never again be dismissed as a bunch of uninhabited rocks. The court has elevated it to a matter of principle.
Paradoxically, the ruling will also increase pressure on the U.S. to finally ratify the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Republicans in the Senate have denied successive administrations the supermajority needed for ratification, but there may be a renewed push in light of the tribunal's decision.
Most importantly, the ruling creates a dilemma for China. Hardliners in Beijing seem to be arguing for decisive action to demonstrate that the court is ineffective and cannot enforce its rulings. There is speculation regarding the imposition of an Air Defense Identification Zone, whereby China requires aircraft over-flying the South China Sea to identify themselves to Chinese authorities in advance, naval blockades or something worse. But such measures will only serve to increase the incentive for others to push back against it.
The key driver of the U.S. rebalance to Asia is the challenge China poses to the regional order. It is rarely described in this way. U.S. officials argue that the country is simply increasing its investment in one of the world's most dynamic and important regions and that it is not about balancing China. But in truth, there was limited appetite in East Asia for greater U.S. engagement when China was playing nice, as it largely was prior to the financial crisis. The demand for greater U.S. engagement was generated by Chinese assertiveness in 2009 and 2010, and China's strategy has sustained it ever since.
If China escalates, the U.S. will become increasingly engaged in the South China Sea and will deploy stronger counter-measures. Chinese assertiveness will only serve to intensify the rebalance to Asia. Moreover, China's neighbors will have more reason to work closely with each other on South China Sea issues, as well as Asian security more generally. On the other hand, if China backs off in the South China Sea, then all to the good. In that event, the court's ruling will have restored stability to the troubled waters.
Even if tensions rise, war is unlikely from the U.S. perspective. The view in the Pentagon is that China's strategic ambition is to share power with the U.S. in East Asia. Beijing does not want to push the U.S. out entirely, but it does want to build a sphere of influence that includes the South China Sea -- something that is completely unacceptable to Washington. Crucially, Beijing believes that it can only obtain this goal if it avoids conflict with the U.S. and, by extension, with U.S. allies. China seeks to increase its footprint by means short of the use of force, with the tactics that we have become very familiar with, including island building and the use of civilian maritime vessels. But war is off the table because it would be an excessive risk that could undermine the regime (if it went badly). And this calculation will not have changed after the ruling, despite reports from Chinese state-run media.
The larger problem facing the U.S. may have to do with the future of the international order. The court's ruling will be brandished by some Chinese to argue that the system is rigged in favor of the West. They will say that the rules protect the powerful and are used to keep down non-Western emerging powers. They may well find an ally in Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin has been much more strident in his criticisms of the U.S.-led liberal order than has Chinese President Xi Jinping. Putin believes this order is a very thin veil used to conceal and justify America's geopolitical interests. The Russian-Chinese relationship has run into difficulty over the past year, but the tribunal's judgement could give it a new lease on life. If Beijing decides to go this route, the implications for global multilateralism may be profound.
There may be crises ahead, and cool heads are needed on all sides. But there is little doubt that the court's ruling is a net benefit for those who favor strong U.S. engagement in East Asia.
Thomas Wright is a fellow and director for the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution.