Though it lost on all legal fronts in the judgment of the international tribunal over its South China Sea claim, China may yet emerge geopolitically the winner.
The reason: if Beijing suffers no material damage from defying the tribunal’s judgment, the lesson for Southeast Asia will be that the continent’s unipolar moment has arrived – and China is atop the pole.
China’s strident denunciations of the tribunal even before the judgment indicated it knew it would lose. But for Beijing, the nine-dash line saga has been largely an expression of raw power, a signal that Beijing could lay claim to 90% of an international water body and that no one, specifically the United States, could do anything about it.
Only in the past one-and-half years has the US responded with naval patrols and airpower, but none of this changes the hard reality of what China has captured on the ground.
This has largely been accomplished. For nearly three years an isolationist Barack Obama administration failed to respond to China’s atoll-hopping.
The greatest damage has been to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a regional body of largely American allies. China’s territorial claims overlap those of five ASEAN members: the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.
But, say Vietnamese and Singaporean officials, China has been able to divide ASEAN with at least four members ensuring that the grouping has been unable to put up a common front against the nine-dash line.
For those Southeast Asian countries which have thrown in their lot with Beijing, the inability of the US to roll back China’s actions is confirmation that they are on the winning side.
“ASEAN unity is now a fiction,” a senior Singaporean diplomat said recently.
When a former Indian former secretary asked a group of eminent ASEAN people some years ago how they saw the present US-China tussle over the South China Sea, they responded with a military metaphor – “If a Chinese carrier comes our way we will look to the US. If it does not send a carrier in response, then we will welcome the Chinese carrier with open arms.”
If, as many expect, the US will do little other than attack China rhetorically after the judgment, Southeast Asians will see it as further evidence of Beijing’s ascendancy.
Privately, Indian diplomats have been critical of the US response to China’s moves. One senior official described the Chinese grab of the South China Sea as akin to Beijing’s takeover of Tibet.
The Obama administration’s back-and-forth policy on countering China and the US’s inability to get allies like Japan or Australia to join US naval incursions into Chinese maritime claim areas were key reasons India turned down US requests for joint naval patrols in the South China Sea.
“We will oppose China’s claims to the last Vietnamese or Filipino,” was how one official semi-seriously characterised India’s policy.
However, China’s continuing success in its South China Sea snatch and grab policy has been a major catalyst for India to deepen and broaden its economic and military influence among Indian Ocean states.
A policy that will only be enhanced after a tribunal judgment that China, though obligated by treaty to obey, has declared as “null and void”.