A Bid to Shape the Future of International Law and Society? China’s position regarding the South China Sea arbitral proceedings and its evolving position within the society of states assessed through the prism of the English School
Roosmalen, H. van
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To ask the question whether China will change, or fundamentally overthrow, our global order was not the purpose of this study. Rather, its objective was twofold. First, it endeavoured to sketch a blueprint for an approach based upon English School theory, with which China’s peaceful rise within international society could be assessed. This resulted in the framework of the ‘acceptance-test’ and a ‘thin-thick’ perspective on international society. Second, it was to apply that framework, which is able to show whether a state is adhering to and accepting the rules and practices of the social structure – or the primary institutions – that underpins global politics, to China’s conduct with regard to the 2016 arbitral award pertaining to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Through an assessment of a patchwork of primary sources, such as government white papers, speeches by officials, media coverage, and academic literature, this study shows that Beijing is displaying a pattern of acceptance of the institution of international law, an institution generally considered to be a sine qua non to the existence of international society. However, in the South China Sea, China is accepting it only insofar it does not potentially affect its alleged sovereignty rights over the land features in the most contested maritime area in the world, contrary to the 2016 arbitral award. I argue that China herewith advocates a very limited, or ‘thin,’ interpretation of international law. In fact, by maintaining its consistent legal collision course, it is forcefully trying to (re)shape international law. Thus, Beijing undeniably behaves like a reformist revisionist power, with regard to the 2016 arbitral award. Notably, this study argues that this conduct is in fact in alignment with Beijing’s policy of peaceful development under Xi Jinping. Furthermore, China’s position is partially explained by diving deeper into the historical and cultural contexts, especially by paying attention to the ‘Age of Humiliation,’ that has left the Chinese leadership with a fierce determination not to ignore even trivial violations of its territorial rights. Taking into account that the distribution of power must not be neglected, this study argues that international society is, at least partially, acquiescing to the rise of a new major power. Overall, this study was able to provide a more nuanced and historically rooted view on the question how Beijing’s position with regard to the arbitral award affects and affected its relationship with the rules and practices that underpin international society. Moreover, it sketched a comprehensive framework with which other case-studies arising out of the debate on the question whether a peaceful Chinese rise is possible may be assessed.