NATIONAL INTEREST — If there ever was a time to follow the always action-packed South China Sea showdown, mark your calendar for July 12th.
Why this specific date? Well, that is the date the International Court of Arbitration has set to issue its ruling in the case of China vs. the Philippines. Most experts are of the collective mind that Beijing is likely to suffer some sort of negative outcome — an outcome they are already trying to distance themselves from.
But what will China do when the verdict is handed down and they likely lose in large measure, as is widely expected?
Beijing has several options — laid out below for your reading pleasure — and most are all bad not only for Asia as a whole, but especially so for Washington, considering it is a treaty ally of Manila and the only party with the capability to reign Beijing in if a crisis occurs:
1. The least likely option – China does nothing and de facto accepts the ruling: What if Beijing simply issues the standard boilerplate statement, declares the South China Sea essentially its sovereign waters, and moves on?
This isn’t a bad option on the surface — China could continue to build on its fake islands in the area, turning them into small military bases armed to the teeth with the latest “carrier-killer” anti-ship weapons, rotate in large amounts of the latest fighter and bomber aircraft and turn the South China Sea into the ultimate anti-access/area-denial zone (A2/AD). In this scenario, Beijing is vocal about its anger towards the ruling, but simply presses on with that it is already doing, which one can argue has been very effective in consolidating its claims.
Such a reaction, mild by Chinese standards these days, seems highly unlikely. Xi Jinping and company will be under tremendous pressure to respond — forcefully and very publicly. The same old strategy won’t apply anymore — many Chinese citizens will demand a tough response, a projection of strength that Beijing won’t be pushed around anymore by external forces in what can only be described as China’s sphere of influence in the South China Sea.
This leads to only two other possibilities — and they all could instigate a dangerous superpower showdown.
2. The most likely option – China declares an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ):