Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia.
Chinese claims in the South China Sea have been rejected by an international court. Beijing's response could determine the future of global politics. Will China be a full partner in the international community, where diplomatic and economic relations depend on promises being kept? Or will China reject international law – and risk becoming a pariah state?
China has only itself to blame for the judgment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. When China ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1996, it accepted the jurisdiction of the court over any dispute arising under that treaty.
Ten years later, China tried to back out of its commitment to binding dispute settlement, by submitting a declaration of non-acceptance to the UN. But because the declaration came after the ratification, and China did not renounce the Convention itself, the declaration had no legal effect.
When the Philippines invoked the jurisdiction of the court to challenge China's actions – including the construction of artificial islands within 200 nautical miles of the Philippine coast – China refused to participate in the hearings. The court had no choice but to proceed in its absence.
The 500-page judgment is unequivocal. There is no legal basis for China's nine-dash line, which it used to delineate "historic rights" over most of the South China Sea. None of the shoals or reefs that China claimed were islands capable of generating coastal rights qualify as "islands" under international law. Instead, the South China Sea is mostly "high seas," open to ships and planes from all countries. And the Philippines, and by extension the other coastal states, have rights to 200 nautical mile-wide exclusive economic zones.
The Philippines won and China lost. But international law is not a game; it is the operating system for international relations.
If China seeks to maintain physical control over the South China Sea, it is not just defying the Permanent Court of Arbitration. It is rejecting the basis of the international community – that treaties, freely consented to, must be upheld.
Chinese defiance would have deep ramifications. China signs a treaty every time it concludes an investment agreement, as it did in 2012 with Canada. What assurance will Canadian companies have of compliance with that agreement, if China is prepared to flout the ruling on the South China Sea?
Canada is considering whether to join the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. But how much are that institution's "articles of agreement" really worth? What are we to make, now, of China's invitation to open free-trade negotiations?
China has ratified hundreds of treaties. Air travel to-and-from China is based upon the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation. Telephone, Internet and satellite links depend upon the Convention of the International Telecommunication Union. Canadians travelling to China depend upon the protections of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Consumers of food imported from China depend upon that country respecting the authority of the Food and Agriculture Organization, which is based on a treaty.
Then there is the Arctic Ocean, where China has – so far – respected the fishing and continental shelf rights of the five coastal states. But if China rejects the application of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in Asia, can any country rely on it respecting those same promises in the Arctic?
Finally, there is the most important treaty of all: the UN Charter, and its prohibition on the use of force. Russia violated that rule in annexing Crimea. Will China now annex the sparsely populated, resource-rich Russian Far East?
I do not want to be alarmist. The Chinese government understands the importance of long-term relationships of trust and respect. But it will be angry about the judgment on the South China Sea. It will also feel vulnerable domestically, having stoked nationalist sentiments on this issue.
China is at a turning point. Its response to the judgment of the Permanent Court could determine whether it is a partner or pariah state. Should it choose badly, the world will become a less prosperous, more dangerous place.