A false choice between acceding to China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea and gunboat diplomacy: a third way is obvious!

By Jerome Cohen

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s remarks on the South China Sea (SCS) on Saturday morning in Singapore have been under-analyzed. The rest of his day, spent with Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, has distracted people from the more immediate challenge of the SCS.

Simon Winchester’s op-ed in New York Times helps us to regain focus. But what I find so infuriating is his assumption that the US is faced with a choice of either acceding to China’s “stealthy seizure of scores of barely visible islets and atolls “ or challenging its “admirable cunning” and “purloining” through risky gunboat diplomacy. No mention at all of the obvious option of challenging China’s actions and its vague but broad claims before the international legal tribunals of impartial experts established to settle disputed claims in a peaceful, civilized manner.

  The Arbitral Tribunal in   Philippines v. China,  photo released by the  Permanent Court of Arbitration

The Arbitral Tribunal in Philippines v. China, photo released by the Permanent Court of Arbitration

Bravo for the Philippines, whose arbitration against China, which the PRC fears and rejects, is gradually approaching a climax that will shake up the current scene. As Manila has made clear, international legal institutions are the last resort of the weak against the strong.

Why can’t the great powers and their policymakers and commentators appreciate that international tribunals can prove very useful in resolving or at least shrinking many potentially dangerous disputes? Modi’s surprisingly wise acceptance of the arbitration decision largely favoring Bangladesh over India in their Bay of Bengal dispute is another illustration worth study. That is the way to keep the peace in hotly-contested areas.