The International Court in The Hague is due to soon rule on the case of the Philippines vs the People’s Republic of China in the South China Sea. The general sense in Australia is that the ruling is likely to be in favour of the Philippines, and that China will react negatively — perhaps rejecting and ignoring the ruling, or perhaps going so far as to declare an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea.

In preparation for the anticipated negative reaction from China, Australia and South East Asian countries are making movements and noises to demonstrate to China that ‘bad behaviour’ will not be tolerated. However, by doing so, we run the risk of further entrenching China’s view that global political dynamics are, as always, PRC vs the world, and that the only way to maintain dignity is to make a bold show that it will not tolerate this perceived bullying.

 In early 2013, the Philippines filed a case against China’s claims in the South China Sea in the International Court in The Hague. In this case, the Philippines argues that China’s claims in the South China Sea must align with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), invalidating China’s nine-dash line; classifying features occupied by China not as islands but as rocks, low tide elevations, or submerged banks; and allowing the Philippines to operate freely inside its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) ( a clear timeline of this phase of proceedings can be found here). In November 2015, the court ruled that it had jurisdiction over the case, and would release a finding before June 2016. China has declared that the judgment of jurisdiction in 2015 is null and void, and that future judgments would have no effect. How China will react when the ruling is released is therefore a subject of considerable and heated speculation.

The general sense in Australia is that the ruling will come down against China, and thus preparations are being made to respond to the anticipated negative reaction. Australian policymakers are analysing a broad range of potential scenarios, from China simply ignoring the ruling (which is not so simple at all, really, as UNCLOS is legally binding on all members, and China is a member); to China declaring an ADIZ in the South China Sea. A South China Sea ADIZ has been a vague possibility since China declared one in the East China Sea in 2013, eliciting strong responses from Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. China repeatedly states that it reserves the right to do so. In the lead-up to the ruling, Australia and South-East Asian nations are seeking to demonstrate to China their collective determination not to allow China to dominate the region.

This tough talk is all very well, but we must also ask ourselves about what we want to see achieved in the long run. What unintended negative consequences could such behaviour generate, and how can these be ameliorated?

 From the outside, China’s behaviour in the South China Sea in past years looks like a pretty clear-cut case of a rising power seeking to dislocate the status quo power and expand its own influence in the region. This is not untrue, as such. However, particular domestic imperatives are at the heart of Chinese foreign policy and behaviour. How China sees the region and its own role within it, and why it wants to increase its own power, need to be understood in order to better negotiate these geo-political shifts. Indeed, if it’s not too esoteric, the question of what ‘power’ means to China, and what it wants to do with it, is worth a pause for consideration — but perhaps not just now.

 As I have written about in more detail elsewhere, China’s recent actions in the South China Sea and possible future actions reflect a strongly held sense in China that history is destiny. According to this view, Chinese actions in the South China Sea reflect the gradual resumption of its rightful and respected place in the world, or in this case, in the region, after the painfully remembered ‘Century of Humiliation’ beginning with the Opium Wars in the mid-1800s.

China’s attitude towards the other claimants in the South China Sea also reflects a narrative of filial piety and familial obligation. In this view, China’s role in the region is that of a regional father figure and benevolent overseer of a peaceful region, in which its neighbours (should) willingly pay due respect. And, if China’s neighbours do not show the proper deference, this is seen to justify taking stronger measures to ensure that this familial order is respected. This is not to say that China does not have material interests in the South China Sea, but these are not the full picture of China’s motivations. 

In the current environment within China, which we can over-simply characterise as beset with economic challenges, environmental challenges, and political tightening, the Communist Party is leaning heavily on the latter of its two pillars of legitimacy: material wellbeing and national identity. If the social contract between the people and the state wobbles, in which politics can carry on largely unexamined as long as people’s daily life continues to improve, the fires of national identity must be stoked. When material wellbeing is not assured, the Party must be seen to be protecting China’s dignity in the international system, ensuring it gets the respect it deserves. Faced with domestic challenges, the Party absolutely cannot be seen to be weak in dealing with the outside world. 

In this context, tough talk by Australia and other regional actors demonstrating to China that challenges to the current order will not be tolerated could run the risk of narrowing Chinese foreign-policy decision-makers’ options. According to the narrative of humiliation so strong in China, it is almost inevitable that other countries will try to keep China down. It is not logical to expect that a country that sees the situation in this way will accept the remonstrations of its perceived oppressors, see the error of its ways, and toe the line. Even if China appears to pull back and behave according to our standards in the short term, it is likely there will be implications be for its sense of persecution and isolation in the longer term.

Ultimately, tough talk must be complemented with skilful behind-the-scenes diplomacy. We must not only warn China of the consequences of bad behaviour, but also engage with Chinese decision-makers so that their options for responding to The Hague’s findings are not narrowed to declaring an ADIZ by a perceived necessity to prove the Party is up to the challenge of demonstrating China’s greatness to the world.