John Rennie Short

John Rennie Short argues that the South China Sea dispute could have significant global consequences

An international court ruling could escalate geopolitical tensions around the world. That’s according to School of Public Policy Professor John Rennie Short, who explains in a new op-ed how an ongoing dispute in the South China Sea could have significant global consequences.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled earlier this week that China has no legal basis to claim a large swath of maritime territory in the South China Sea, a group of islands that is currently in the midst of a territorial dispute between China and the Philippines.

In an article in The Conversation titled “Troubled waters: conflict in the South China Sea explained,” Short explains that the court ruling about the sovereignty of the islands “…will likely create more problems than solutions. Interpreted by China as a U.S.-inspired power move, it will increase rather than decrease geopolitical tensions.”

South China Sea
Ships from the George Washington Carrier Strike Group (GWCSG) and Royal Malaysian Navy steam in formation during a photo exercise.

Short writes that while the court’s decision will strengthen other countries’ counter-efforts to Chinese maritime expansion, it will not stop China from moving forward, especially since the court has no enforcement power.

“China will snub the legal international order and seek bilateral negotiations with the Philippines,” he explains, adding, “the ruling does not make diplomacy any easier for the U.S., which now has to deal with an ally who has won a legal decision but also a rival who will not back down under the muscular pose of President Xi Jinping, even after the court ruling.”

As a political geography and globalization researcher, Short says that China’s motive is seeking international political and economic clout as it continues to build up atolls and islands in the region. He provides the historical background for China’s maneuvers, including Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), which were first introduced in the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of The Sea.

“Part of China’s strategy in the waters of the South China Sea then is to lay claim over islands, natural and artificial, in order to establish sovereignty to claim the surrounding waters,” he writes.

The United States Navy has taken actions in recent months that Short says are designed to enforce the idea that the South China Sea is considered open water and that the U.S. is still a power in the region.

“Yet, conflict between Washington and Beijing can be managed. There are vast areas of mutual economic interest and shared global objectives,” Short explains. “A greater fear is that a local event can spin out of control….And often it is events at the local that can influence the global.”

Read the original article in The Conversation (updated July 12). Additional media coverage can be found below:

What’s happening in the South China Sea? (U.S. News) 
#SouthChinaSea: ‘China wants to offset negative outcomes for its reputation’ (Radio Sputnik) 
US-China: ‘Chances of a conflagration in the Pacific region are quite high’ (Radio Sputnik) 
Troubled waters: conflict in the South China Sea explained (Associated Press)   
Troubled waters: conflict in the South China Sea explained (Honolulu Civil Beat News) 

Header image: John Rennie Short. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11 for UMBC. 

Bottom image: Ships from the George Washington Carrier Strike Group (GWCSG) and Royal Malaysian Navy steam in formation during a photo exercise. The GWCSG is on patrol in the 7th Fleet area of operations supporting security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Trevor Welsh/Released) CC by-SA 2.0.