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Today we begin our series of Backgrounders on the NCFCA Team Policy resolution with an overview of one of the most contentious issues surrounding China’s foreign policy: The South China Sea. This issue has been building in intensity over the past few years and has recently seen serious development.


What’s going on?

On the most basic level, it’s a dispute over who controls the South China Sea, a territory the size of Mexico and, as the New York Times points out, “some of the most strategically important maritime territories on earth.” China has been slowly exerting more and more control over this territory over the past few years, going as far as building small artificial islands and, as of a few weeks ago, nuclear power stations on these small installments. The signs are becoming abundantly clear that China has no plans on leaving. This expansion is daunting to surrounding small countries. If China is able to maintain its stated maritime boundaries, at least five rival claimants will be confined to just a short stretch of sea right off of their coasts.

One of these claimants, the Philippines, took China to a UN tribunal in 2013, claiming China’s actions had violated the United Nations Convention on the Laws Of the Sea (or UNCLOS). This treaty set boundaries for how far a state may exercise sovereignty into the sea and defined the lines between international waters and those owned by a particular state. China is a signatory of UNCLOS, and as such is subject to the judgment of international courts if it violates the Convention. The South China Sea, the Philippines claimed, is not within China’s sphere of authority, and as such it was a violation for China to build there or to in any way exercise sovereignty over the region.

At the tribunal, China’s most prominent argument stated that it historically has had control of the region, and provided a map supposedly dating back to 1947 showing that they controlled the Spratly and Paracel islands – two island chains located in the South China Sea claimed by many different countries. Vietnam and the Philippines specifically have provided documents indicating their claims to the territory as well.

The conflict is one territorial dispute out of many that have plagued that stretch of sea for decades, but is especially controversial given China’s assertive moves to take the territory, including mobilizing an aircraft carrier with an entourage in tow into the region, which the Atlantic referred to as “ a textbook reenactment of the gunboat diplomacy practiced by Western nations a century ago.”


Where are we now?

A few weeks ago, the tribunal issued its rulings and found that China had “no legal basis” for its expansion into the South China Sea, adding that any historical right to the territory China might have had dissolved with they signed UNCLOS. (Linkage) The decision was unanimous among the five legal experts/judges that presided over the tribunal. The panel agreed on almost every point with the Philippines, prompting the Philippines’ chief legal counsel to call it “an overwhelming victory.”

China, unsurprisingly, doesn’t agree with the ruling, stating that China has exercised sovereignty over the territory “since ancient times.” The Philippines, on the other hand, were very happy with this ruling, and despite the Philippine government’s surprisingly modest response, the people of the Philippines cried tears of joy and victory. While the issue may seem like a faraway international issue for those of us here in the US, the increasingly aggressive nature of China’s foreign policy is casting a growing shadow over small countries like the Philippines, making this a huge victory for them. The cheers, however, may be a bit premature.

Things are starting to simmer down now. At this point, the Phillippines and the other claimants to the South China Sea are looking at each other and asking, “what happens now?” China has stated that it does not intend on abandoning its position, and the tribunal has no mechanism to use to force them to abide by its rulings and vacate the disputed territory.

Officially, the US has taken no position on the issue but has been adamant about its intentions to continue its routine naval operations in the region.


So… What now?

The problem with the ruling is shaping up to be very similar to the problems that have plagued US-China relations for years and the relative weakness of international institutions in enforcing their decisions. We want to contain China, and we want to hold them accountable for not just the South China Sea debacle, but cyber warfare, market manipulation, and intellectual property theft as well. The UN and other international institutions want their decisions to be followed, but there is little incentive for countries like China to abide by their rulings in situations like this. This is because China knows that everything is going to stay the same. They have tested the waters (pun intended) with issues like cyber terrorism and found that the world’s leading superpowers (the US, most notably) are not willing to give up the benefits of the status quo. They also saw what happened when Russia invaded Crimea – nothing. Think about it from their perspective: if Russia can invade populated territory without serious repercussions, why can’t we just take these strategically important waters?

This is where our desire to show China that they can’t get away with just anything meets the harsh realities of our relationship with them. We want to retaliate. We want to exercise our role as the world’s leading superpower. We want to send a decisive signal to China that we won’t stand by while they violate international law. The question no one seems to be able to answer is how do we do that?

A few weeks ago, I spoke to political science professor and international relations expert Dr. Andrew Cortell.  He noted that “the United States benefits greatly from its complex relationship with China.” He argued that the relationship between China and the United States is defined by the US desire to maintain the status quo and China’s desire to see how far they can stretch the relationship without jeopardizing the benefits they, too, get from their relationship with the US. The reason for this is simple: China is the US’ most significant trading partner, with our trade with them totaling $589 billion dollars in 2015. They also hold $1.2 trillion in US debt. This makes it difficult for the US to consider taking any action that could destabilize the relationship. China likely sees it much like we do, but have decided that it’s worth it to push the limits of US complacency as far as they can. The US has taken a stance of almost denial in response to increasing Chinese boldness, aiming to not rustle any feathers unless definitive action will take place. Should we be worried about increasing Chinese aggression? Dr. Cortell says we should be.

Applying this to the NCFCA debate environment, it’s going to be imperative that everyone develops an understanding of how fragile the relationship with China is. US inaction is not caused by a lack of understanding regarding China’s actions, it’s caused by a lack of viable options. Any policy adopted by the US that has the appearance of hostility towards China could have disastrous economic consequences, which is going to make it difficult to reasonably argue any systemic change in our approach to the US-China relationship.


So do recent developments mean anything?

Yes and no. While it’s certainly a blow to the legitimacy of China’s actions, it’s unlikely to spark any action that their previous aggressive actions didn’t. While such an explicit reprimand from an international court would usually prompt global condemnation, and perhaps even sanctions, that has not been the case with the recent ruling on the South China Sea. No one wants to challenge the status quo enough to change anything.

On the fundamental level, scholars like Dr. Cortell worry about the world’s polarity. The world’s polarity refers to the amount of true national superpowers in the world at any given time. They have found that the world is the most peaceful when it is unipolar, as is the case now with the US being the sole superpower in the world. If you think back to WWII or the Cold War, you can imagine the problems with a multipolar world. When there are multiple superpowers vying for control, the world becomes a volatile place, (If you want a more thorough understanding of this concept, Cortell recommends The Stability of a Unipolar World by William C. Wohlforth) Some worry that China is beginning to challenge US primacy. They see China as growing both economically and militarily with no logical end in sight. That situation creates tension as China expands while the world becomes increasingly agitated by their aggressiveness. While no one can tell you exactly what the end game is for that situation, it’s not likely to be anything good.

What does this mean for you as a debater trying to figure out what to think about this resolution? For one, it means significant cases may prove hard to find and rife with solid negative literature. Affirmative cases are going to need to be impeccably researched and, above all else, nuanced. Foreign policy is complicated and fragile, and any affirmative team that doesn’t have a solid understanding of the nuance behind our current policy is going to have a hard time advocating a transformation of it.

I would advise following the situation in the South China Sea and the developments surrounding it as they continue to unfold.

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