US needs to tread carefully after South China Sea ruling

A United Nations tribunal has ruled in favor of the Philippines and against China in an arbitration case involving contested territory in the South China Sea. Chinese experts at Cornell University are available for comment on today’s development.

Jessica Chen Weiss, professor of government at Cornell University, says that in the aftermath of the ruling, the U.S. and its allies should not trumpet China’s defeat or loss of face.


Weiss says:

“The Chinese government has repeatedly rejected the tribunal’s jurisdiction, laying the groundwork for flexibility in how China responds.

“Chinese state media are stressing that the best response to the ruling is to ignore the verdict. However the U.S. and its allies proceed, a quiet approach – actions without words and a minimum of publicity – would be most effective. The more we trumpet China’s defeat or loss of face, the more domestic pressure the government will feel to respond with more than bluster.”


Andrew Mertha, a Cornell University specialist in Chinese politics, political institutions and its exercise of power, says that the ruling further isolates China internationally. Internally, Mertha adds, Beijing might also have painted itself into a corner.


Mertha says:

“The ruling is far less ambiguous than had been almost universally anticipated in not simply denying China’s claims; they also present a stunning rebuke.

“It is a stark rejection of historical practice as a justification for China’s South China Sea claims, such as the nine dash line. Given the centrality of China’s historically-based ‘Century of Humiliation’ at the hands of Western powers with which Beijing has inculcated its citizenry, we should expect an outpouring of nationalist sentiment that will result in China’s further isolation from – rather than engagement with – the international system.

“The decision sharply curtails Beijing’s legal jurisdiction over areas surrounding the sea bases that China had constructed throughout the South China Sea, making them simultaneously more vulnerable to invasive surveillance and, potentially, to a Chinese hair-trigger response.

“As far as international opinion is concerned, China has effectively isolated itself. Domestically, Beijing has painted itself into a corner and may find itself compelled to act in a potentially reckless fashion, if only to demonstrate to its domestic audience that it is not to use a Cold War term, an ‘empty cannon’ in the eyes of its own citizens.

“Our next moves must accordingly be both careful and deliberate.”

Rebecca Valli
office: 607-255-7701
cell: 607-793-1025

Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews.

– 30 –