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Editorials China’s international law problem is as wide as the sea

What can we do about China? Rogue states generally aren't built on such a huge scale.

In many ways, China plays along with the international system – the generally law-abiding network of global powers that recognized after the Second World War how closely peace and security are tied to a healthy respect for the rules of borders and boundaries.

But at the same time, China sometimes behaves like a force trying to overthrow the system. With its enthusiastically confrontational dispute over control of the South China Sea, Beijing has repeatedly acted as if it considers itself above international law. What China wants, China gets is the operative principle, and damn the consequences for the rest of the co-dependent world. Despite being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Beijing has consistently ignored the law's territorial limits, and its neighbours' territorial claims, in a series of aggressive actions – including the construction of artificial islands – that aim to assert sovereignty over the crowded sea lanes of the resource-rich South China Sea, far from China's shores.

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On Tuesday, the UN's Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled against China in a judgment so damning that we must now worry about the Chinese leadership's instinctive need to resort to face-saving retaliation. The authority of the UN and its courts, so crucial in the diplomatic manoeuvrings of the prickly modern world, appears to be irrelevant in China's high-stakes game – only the institution's power to offend is given due credit in Beijing.

China refused to take part in the legal proceedings – of course – and its spokespeople have constantly denied the international court's authority. "How many divisions has The Hague?" you can hear them saying with their best Joe Stalin imitation.

However, having the law on their side will encourage the smaller countries of the South China Sea, all locked in disputes with their gargantuan neighbour – and will win them further support from global powers who see the need to rein China in. Despite the bellicose posturing designed for domestic consumption, China should now recognize that there is more to be gained from negotiation – if only because, as a superpower, it can negotiate from a position of strength.

Rogue states are normally weak and dismissible. But China is too powerful to be ignored, especially when it's being bad.

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