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China's Claims To South China Sea Represent 'A Fight Over Pride'


This ruling is an introduction for many of us to maritime law and the possible problems that may ensue. Here to talk about it with us is Ruth Wedgwood. She is a professor of international law and diplomacy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Good to see you.

RUTH WEDGWOOD: Very nice to be here.

SIEGEL: As we just heard, China plans to ignore this ruling. What could that mean? What might we expect China to do next if it ignores...

WEDGWOOD: ...Well, I hope ignore means sit passively and do nothing. And that would be fine because the objection is rather to what China has been doing proactively - of building up underwater reefs into islands and then claiming 200-mile exclusive economic zones around them. And, frankly, threatening other people's navies from time to time.

SIEGEL: And the court has said they have no basis in law to do it.

WEDGWOOD: You can't have an island in a box and shake it and have it pop up and call it an island.

SIEGEL: China boycotted the entire court proceedings. They said the Philippines' move to initiate arbitration without China's consent was in bad faith. And then they characterized the final ruling as a farce. If they ignore the ruling and they don't change how they operate, if they make still more islands or build them still farther, what might the United States do in response to that?

WEDGWOOD: Well, I think we'll probably be very cautious. We've been doing periodic sales through the South China Sea just to show that it is open waterway. It's an international waterway, and therefore the freedom of navigation is crucial for us and for other countries that want to be able to maintain international commerce. The oddity about China, though - it's very hard to get a Chinese official to articulate what they want...

SIEGEL: But...

WEDGWOOD: ...Other than respect.

SIEGEL: Would they face sanctions if they ignore this ruling of the court?

WEDGWOOD: Or to sue them in the International Court of Justice for diligence?

SIEGEL: Yeah, or some kind of trade sanctions against them. Is anything like that possible?

WEDGWOOD: Well, we are their best customer. But really, in actual fact, we're joined at the hip. We're the customer. They're the producer. It'd be bad for both economies to have any prideful claim over who owns the farm to interfere with what has been a very productive economic relationship. And China can't afford it.

SIEGEL: So you would say it was a fair hearing of China's claim, which was thrown out.

WEDGWOOD: A very cautious hearing, actually.

SIEGEL: A cautious hearing. Are they obliged by the court to do something?

WEDGWOOD: Well, this is an order, if you will, a ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which is one of the very earliest arbitral tribunals. The cost here is at least that China's credibility as a promise keeper will be diminished.

SIEGEL: So credibility, prestige perhaps.

WEDGWOOD: And would you do business with these people, so to say, if you thought they would welch on their promises? And when you've signed the Law of the Sea Convention, you've promised to abide by its text and its principles. And there might be many other areas where China would like cooperation whether it's in space shots, whether it's in countering a resurgent Mother Russia if Vladimir Putin gets out of bed on the wrong side one day, and other problems in the area like piracy. If Taiwan becomes a bit more frisky, if Japan started remilitarizing I could see China, in fact, actively wanting our succor and cooperation.

SIEGEL: It seems like part of the problem here is that other maritime disputes have been settled by somehow creatively dividing the wealth that might be in or under the waters of that issue. China is talking about a historical connection, a claim to the South China Sea that seems on its face to be completely indivisible.

WEDGWOOD: If this is part of some kind of nostalgia for an imperial past when they were the only power in the region and the Ming Dynasty was in full throttle, then I can't help that except by referral to a very friendly psychologist.

SIEGEL: You can deal with material claims. You can deal with...

WEDGWOOD: ...If it's just money, honey, then you split it. So far there's been no indication of anything particularly valuable in the South China Sea. There have been oil companies doing surveys, but this may be mostly a fight over pride and dominance and political grandeur, if you will, but not over things that are real. And for that reason, it's all the more foolish on the part of Beijing.

SIEGEL: Ruth Wedgwood, thanks for talking with us...

WEDGWOOD: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: ...About the ruling. Ruth Wedgwood, professor of international law and diplomacy at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.