The hottest hot topic in Asia this week is a UN tribunal’s landmark ruling on various aspects of the South China Sea territorial dispute between China and the Philippines. The ruling involved a 479-page interpretation of international law, so if you don’t know your EEZs from your LTEs or your rocks from your submerged banks, it’s easy to get lost in the legal minutiae. It doesn’t help that most commentaries are about what ‘should’ happen rather than what ‘will’ happen – lots of op-eds amounting to: “China must do various things it isn’t going to do”. The tribunal findings and potential responses have been summarized elsewhere (for example here), but it’s also worth stepping back from the details for a broader, longer view of where the South China Sea disputes are heading. Sorry it’s quite depressing.

Judgment day

The court’s decision is a big deal because – much more clearly than expected – it essentially said that key underpinnings of China’s South China Sea claims are not valid under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). On one level this has no direct impact on the situation on the ground. The court had no jurisdiction to actually decide who owns what or to draw maritime boundaries, only to interpret how UNCLOS applies to the issues the Philippines raised. China vociferously rejected the tribunal’s legitimacy from the start, and rejects its findings just as stridently – it won’t abandon its expanded presence and activity in disputed areas, and nobody can make it.

Despite this, the decision could be, if not an immediate game-changer, at least a catalyst for change. This is essentially because it accelerates the negative trends that have already been playing out in recent years, and could bring forward the point at which key players risk more serious brinkmanship than hitherto, or get serious about some kind of compromise. Sadly the former is much more likely.

Tribunal triggers

Right now we’ll likely see caution from all sides. Given the tribunal’s limited jurisdiction and China’s refusal to recognize it, and with less public-opinion pressure than in disputes with Japan, Beijing can stick to largely symbolic responses while assessing the situation. The Philippines has sent mixed signals but hinted it would consider talks with China. However, while neither side wants to spark conflict, nor are they likely to make major concessions.

Both sides have multiple response options ranging from pretty safe steps (like increasing symbolic patrols), through indirectly provocative ones (such as new deployments, construction and land-reclamation), to potentially downright dangerous ones (including directly confronting vessels in potential flashpoints like Scarborough Shoal).

There is an inherent miscalculation risk here, as each side tries to calibrate these response options to assert their position without provoking a serious escalation. Although the most likely scenarios involve limited, localized incidents – not wider conflict or severe trade disruption – the frequency and likelihood of potential escalation triggers has been growing for years, and the tribunal ruling compounds that trend.

The US, Philippines and others hope to build on the ruling to reverse or halt the tide of growing Chinese de facto control. They are emboldened to respond more robustly to perceived Chinese provocations, but could also try to proactively ‘enforce’ aspects of the ruling (for example, the Philippines could resume fishing at Scarborough Shoal with US escort after the ruling said China’s denial of fishing access was unlawful). China will feel the need to demonstrate tangibly that it won’t back down in the face of a multilateral tribunal, as it hopes to deter more UNCLOS cases. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s own image is at stake: he has publicly stated that China will not accept any attempts to enforce the ruling.

No endgame in sight

A more positive catalytic effect is also possible. There are plenty in Chinese policymaking circles who have long been aware of problems with aspects of China’s position. Few seriously expect other countries to accept the nine-dash line, for example. It is conceivable that China will reach a point where the short-term costs and risks of brinkmanship outweigh the long-term aspiration to regional hegemony, and cause it to seriously pursue some limited settlements or more sustainable ‘re-freezing’ of disputes. In an optimistic, long-term view, the tribunal ruling could bring China to that point faster, by bringing into focus in Beijing the drawbacks to its current approach (inflexibility, isolation, miscalculation risks and distant prospects of ultimate success), and forcing more serious consideration of alternatives.

For some strategists, Beijing’s outlook is not necessarily as rigid the official mantra suggests. The official position might prove a kind of transitional approach as China emerges from decades of passive foreign policy, and forces others to take its claims seriously and prepare for concessions to accommodate China’s rise. But it is far from clear that Chinese leaders have thought very deeply beyond this vague approach, or have a clear sense of what their goals and endgame are as all sides raise the stakes.

There is some stereotypical long-term perspective involved insofar as China expects its leverage to grow ever-stronger over time, so is in no hurry for a settlement. But China is highly unlikely to achieve such dominance that neighbours simply abandon their claims, at least not for many decades, whereas the recent pace of Beijing’s development in the South China Sea, if sustained, could bring matters to a head in the next few years. This raises huge questions over how far China intends to go down its current path.

For now, China has found a range of action in which it can take substantial steps to increase its de facto control and military power in the region without a major risk of military conflict. But unless it has some plan and flexibility for more achievable outcomes – some endgame besides an improbable total dominance many decades from now – its current approach looks unsustainable. In the meantime, years of contained but corrosive brinkmanship lie ahead. In the last decade the Taiwan Strait has receded as a major threat to regional security, but the South China Sea seems increasingly entrenched alongside the Korean Peninsula, as an intractable source of uncertainty and periodic crises for the foreseeable future.