The Hague ruling: A dangerous step toward war

In the wake of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s sweeping ruling on Tuesday in The Hague, negating all Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea, there has been a chorus of US-led condemnations of China’s “illegal activities,” demands that Beijing abide by the court decision and calls for US diplomatic and military action to enforce the verdict.

A New York Times editorial entitled “Testing the Rule of Law in the South China Sea” declared that “the signs are troubling” that “Beijing has defiantly rejected an international arbitration court’s jurisdiction” and will not accept the “path-breaking judgment.” It gave its stamp of approval to the Obama administration’s building of “closer security ties with Asian nations” and mounting increased naval patrols to counter “China’s assertiveness.”

In its editorial, the Wall Street Journal declared that the tribunal dealt “a necessary rebuke” to China’s sovereignty claims and “aggressive attempts to enforce them,” which “threatened the rules-based order” in Asia. It called for an “increase in scope and frequency” in the US Navy’s provocative “freedom of navigation” intrusions into waters surrounding Chinese-controlled islets in the South China Sea.

The hypocrisy involved is staggering. The United States has nothing but contempt for international law and has never been called to account by any international tribunal for its illegal wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya, which have resulted in the deaths of millions. As part of its “pivot to Asia” against China, the Obama administration is chiefly responsible for transforming longstanding, low-key regional disputes in the South China Sea into a dangerous flashpoint that threatens to trigger a new and even more devastating war.

Washington has refused to ratify the international law under which the case in The Hague was heard—the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—and does not even recognise the UN's International Court of Justice, also in The Hague. It used the Philippines as a proxy before the Permanent Court of Appeal to advance its own aggressive agenda in the South China Sea.

The final outcome, which accepted the Philippine submissions virtually in toto, was a foregone conclusion. The lengthy ruling not only dismissed China’s historic claims to large areas of the South China Sea, but severely circumscribed its claims to waters around reefs and islets under its control and condemned various of its activities, including land reclamation, as illegal.

Washington will now work to further exacerbate the territorial disputes within the South China Sea, which have been a convenient pretext for its huge military build-up there, and to strengthen its strategic alliances and partnerships in South East Asia. Over the past five years, the US has established new basing arrangements in northern Australia and the Philippines, stationed the latest littoral combat vessels in Singapore, boosted ties with Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, and ramped up its joint military exercises throughout the region.

At the same time, the US will insist on further “freedom of navigation” operations. These have nothing to do with protecting regional trade, but rather seek to ensure access for US warships and aircraft in strategically sensitive waters close to the Chinese mainland. The Pentagon’s strategy for war with China—AirSea Battle—envisages a massive air and missile assault from ships, submarines and bases in the western Pacific, supplemented by a naval blockade to cripple the Chinese economy. The build-up in South East Asia is part of a broader expansion aimed at encircling China. By 2020, 60 percent of American military aircraft and ships will be deployed to the Indo-Pacific.

The United States government may not necessarily want a war with China, but it is determined to use every available means to maintain its global dominance, and it regards China as the chief obstacle. Its increasingly reckless confrontation with China, and also Russia, is aimed at ensuring their subordination to American interests with the ultimte aim of breaking them up and reducing them to the status of colonial protectorates.

The Hague decision has underscored the complete political bankruptcy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime in Beijing, which represents the interests of a tiny ultra-wealthy capitalist elite, not the vast majority of working people. By whipping up Chinese nationalism, expanding its armed forces and threatening to impose an Air Defence Identification Zone over the South China Sea, the CCP leadership plays directly into the hands of US imperialism and sows divisions in the international working class.

The court ruling marks a dangerous turning point that will inevitably heighten the risk that a minor incident, whether deliberate or not, involving rival claimants in the South China Sea, spirals out of control and triggers a conflict between the US and China—two nuclear-armed powers. As the global economic crisis of capitalism worsens, humanity is once again being plunged toward world war by the bankrupt profit system and its outmoded division of the world into rival nation states.

The only social force capable of halting the drive to war is the international working class, on the basis of a unified struggle to abolish capitalism and fundamentally restructure society along socialist lines—so as to meet the urgent social needs of the majority, not the profit requirements of the super-rich few. We urge all our readers to support the International Committee of the Fourth International and its sections, which are alone in campaigning to build an international anti-war movement of workers to fight for this socialist internationalist perspective.