|By Zhai Haijun|
The analysis of international relations has been largely an affair of realism and idealism for decades. Realists believe that states are the most important actors in the international arena and that national interests are significantly influencing their foreign policy conduct. By contrast, idealists share a rather romantic and normative view of the world believing in the efficiency of international organizations and institutions, often considering them a panacea for differences to be settled on the world stage.
The recent ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the South China Sea is perceived in the Western media discourse as a “victory” for the Philippines and a “defeat” for China. Idealists might be keen on urging Beijing to comply with the decision according to their own interpretation of how countries have to behave in the international arena. Nonetheless, similar cases in the past demonstrate that the notion of idealism has been more applicable in academia and the intellectual debate rather than in day-to-day politics where realism prevails. There is no better figure for this approach than former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Powerful countries normally act to preserve their national security interests in their own way. A plethora of examples exist starting with the history of the Peloponnesian War written by Thucydides and particularly the dialogue between the Athenians and the Melians. The war on Iraq in 2003 is the most characteristic case in the modern era. Harvard Professor Graham Allison says explicitly that great powers do not recognize the jurisdiction of courts such as the PCA, “which are only for small powers.” He also concentrates on what the U.S. did when legal decisions had been at its expense as with the reparations it needed to pay to Nicaragua in the 1980s.
Subsequently, the question to be asked is what can happen when a jurisdiction is not accepted by one of the involved parties. From the very beginning, China had made clear that it would ignore the verdict on the South China Sea presenting its own argument. So, how will a court decision be practically applied when a state does not agree with it because it believes that its national sovereignty is being distorted? Criticism of the Chinese administration for its stance does not solve the problem.
The content of the Award on the South China Sea was expected and this is not the right time to talk about winners and losers and endorse the logic of Manichaeism. Stability and peace in the South China Sea are the principal challenges for the future. From the moment there is no mechanism to enforce the jurisdiction; the role of China is of utmost significance for the preservation of calmness. Asia should not be divided over the recent ruling as a potential conflict in the South China Sea will benefit no one. By contrast, it might have dramatic consequences for world security, taking the naval presence of the U.S. into account and its effort to encircle China.
The stance of rising China will be catalytic for future developments in the South China Sea. The country will practically have a critical say irrespective of the communication war which is currently in progress in the West. The beginning of a discussion on what legal norms should entail and if double standards are followed according to the nature of court decisions and the contradicting interests of world countries is not timely and does not lead any further. What is timely and also necessary is to find a modus vivendi in the South China Sea which will set the basis for peace paving the way for prosperity for all states and peoples in the region. Enhanced cooperation among all relevant players will be the key towards this direction.
To sum up, the dilemma over which foreign policy ideology has to prevail in the case of the South China Sea following the recent ruling seems here to be almost non-existent. While idealism can only serve public diplomacy purposes and jeopardize peace, realism might lead to necessary compromises and guarantee a better future. China will be among the actors to define this future.
George N. Tzogopoulos is a lecturer at the European Institute in Nice.
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