In an overwhelming vote the tribunal of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague has ruled in favor of the Philippines in its suit against Chinese claims in the South China Sea. In a perfect world, this would bring an end to China’s claims that it has a historic right to most of the waters of the South China Sea, claims that have caused tremors in most of the countries bordering that body of water, and raised security concerns in the U.S., whose navy insists on ‘right of passage’ in the region.

Anyone thinking that this is the end of this thorny issue, though, is sadly mistaken. The Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) has long claimed dominance over the South China Sea, conducting offensive naval maneuvers, establishing bases on some of the islands, and coming perilously close to U.S. Navy vessels transiting the waters.

The PRC now faces a dilemma. Should it ignore the ruling in order to maintain its domestic prestige, or yield in order to improve relations with its neighbors and the U.S., one of its major trading partners? Yielding would make sense, as it would ease tensions in the region. But, when it comes to what it sees as its historic rights, China has shown itself to be somewhat rigid. Witness Chinese actions regarding Taiwan, which it insists is a province of China, and not an independent country. While it might draw back on some of the more aggressive actions, there’s no way it will completely yield. In China’s mind, it’s still Chung Guo, the Middle Kingdom, surrounded by barbarian and vassal states. Moreover, China sees itself as a global power, entitled to the respect and honor that that title implies.

We might see an interlude of, if not peace, at least, less confrontation, until the people sitting at the top of China’s power pyramid think of another way to press their claims. It ain’t over until the fat lady sings, and I predict that the song the world will hear will be as discordant as the sound of Beijing opera is to Western ears.

Published by Charles Ray