What you need to know
'The boldest, most calculating political leader since Mao, Mr. Xi may have made himself the most fêted politician in modern Chinese history, but in staking everything on personal unassailability he has locked himself — and China — into a position he cannot step down from.'
The Hague has delivered its ruling on the legitimacy of China’s claim on the South China Sea. As many experts expected, the ruling challenges China’s claimed legal maritime sovereignty over waters that stretch from Singapore to the Taiwan Strait — an area of 1.4 million square miles that sees the passage of a third of the world’s shipping.
In fact, The Hague ruling — in a move that is guaranteed to infuriate China — goes so far as to say that “The Tribunal concluded that there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the 'nine-dash line.'”
When the Philippines filed for arbitration, the hope was that a ruling would establish an international consensus on whether China’s claims apply under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But as Beijing reiterated last month at the Shangri-la Dialogue, a regional security conference held in Singapore, it will ignore the verdict. It did so officially again less than an hour before the ruling, accusing The Hague of being “a law-abusing tribunal.”
The geopolitical importance of the South China Sea, which is potentially China’s gateway to the Pacific Ocean, cannot be understated. But similarly its geopolitical importance to the U.S., to Japan, to the Philippines, to Vietnam and other regional powers cannot be understated.
Under President Xi Jinping (習近平), China has cornered itself into a non-negotiable position on the South China Sea. Its propaganda gives the impression of a nation state with a bombastic agenda, punching above its weight in the face of the rules and norms that generally regulate international diplomatic discourse.
This makes the South China Sea a flashpoint — and a very dangerous flashpoint. But China cannot and will not back down on its sweeping claims. The stakes for China are not simply geopolitical; they involve national pride. And, amid a faltering economy, Mr. Xi is staking everything on national pride, on making China great again, in return for continued one-party rule.
Mr. Xi’s bold ambition is to achieve a grand “rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation. He calls it “the Chinese Dream,” but Mr. Xi’s actions — his ruthless authoritarianism in silencing dissent at home and in advancing his ambitions abroad — amount to a recklessly desperate break with what might also be called the “China Deal”: continued prosperity for the Chinese people, along with double-digit, and export-led growth, conditionally based on no political reform.
Given that the days of double-digit, export-led growth are over for China, the enormity of Mr. Xi’s ambitions has led to an existential break with the old “normal” established by Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) and his successors. They abandoned the personality-cult, dictatorial style of Mao Zedong (毛澤東) in favor of pragmatic economic policies, and a “hide and bide” international role — based on a Deng Xiaoping slogan: “Hide your strength, bide your time.”
Mr. Xi has seemingly abandoned that route and decided to go it alone. It is a highly risky move, but one that is telling of the pressure China is under in transitioning to a global player with geopolitical ambitions that ultimately put it at loggerheads with the world’s only other true superpower, the U.S.
In the years following the rule of Deng Xiaoping, under Jiang Zemin (江澤民) and next under Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), the Chinese political system saw a devolution of paramount power, operating under a collective presidency, which, in its unique way, operated as a non-democratic system of checks and balances.
A so-called Chinese Communist Party “princeling,” Mr. Xi has turned China’s recent incremental political “progress” on its head. He has established himself as the dictator of the world’s most populous nation, placing himself at the vanguard of China’s national grievances, and provocatively reclaiming its “lost territories.” That involves building islands in the South China Sea, with an eye to retaking Taiwan, while implicitly re-designating its regional neighbors as vassal states in a reimagined recreation of Qing Dynasty glory.
But, too frequently overlooked, in taking this dictatorial role, Mr. Xi has left himself with no place to back down.
This is Xi’s chief weakness. China’s president has locked himself, and China, into an all-or-nothing playbook. In this sense — more than any other politician with comparable power — Mr. Xi is not to be trusted, has failed China, and has become a threat to global stability.
How long Mr. Xi can continue on this track remains to be seen. He has promised “rule of law” and then arbitrarily arrested hundreds of human rights lawyers. He has eliminated potential political opposition under the pretext of clamping down on corruption, in what, as the Chinese writer Murong Xuecun has noted, looks far more like a “Stalinist purge” than a clampdown on corruption.
Meanwhile, Mr. Xi, often jokingly referred to as the Chairman of Everything, has presided over the evolution of what was once a ham-fisted propaganda system and not only bent it to his own interests — and openly at that, with pronouncements such as “the media is surnamed the Party” — but played a starring role in its increasing national-pride stirring theatrics in a gilded vision of a rising China to his own people. He has achieved that while simultaneously doing deals with foreign media under the guise of telling “the real China story.”
The Hague ruling on China’s claims on the South China Sea is a challenge to that story, and China will react to that with angry belligerence.
The boldest, most calculating political leader since Mao, Mr. Xi may have made himself the most fêted politician in modern Chinese history, but in staking everything on personal unassailability he has locked himself — and China — into a position he cannot step down from.
It is a dangerous position insofar as The Hague ruling provides legitimacy to U.S. and Japanese efforts to confine Beijing’s efforts to greatly expand its regional maritime influence. Today’s ruling against a rising totalitarian regime led by recalcitrant autocrat puts the entire region in unprecedentedly dangerous waters.
This article originally appeared on the author's Medium page. Reprinted with permission.
First Editor: J. Michael Cole
Second Editor: Edward White