The ruling earlier this week by the Permanent Court of Arbitration against China’s activities in the South China Sea seems to have fallen off the headlines. Admittedly, it’s been a dramatic week in international affairs, but this might be the most portentous.
On the one hand, it will be a major test as to whether China now considers itself an equal of the United States — in considering international law to be inapplicable where national interests are at stake. On the other, it will force the US, whilst nearing transition to a new administration, to decide whether global stability is best advanced by enforcing international law, or by confessing that it doesn’t actually apply to states powerful enough to ignore it.
This has particular significance in the context of Brexit, and the US-China bipolar world that a failed European project leaves in its wake. It will also expose the new US President to a major foreign policy test early in his or her term. There seems little doubt that American society will embark on the most socially regressive period in a generation if voters elect Trump; but I can’t help but have greater anxiety that the establishment foreign policy machinery behind a Clinton administration would politely prosecute a far more inflammatory agenda on international relations than the brash, loudmouthed business mogul.