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International Tribunal Rules Against China's Claims In The South China Sea

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For years, China has built up territory in the South China Sea, piling sand onto reefs to make islands. It has aggressively defended the waters as its own despite competing claims from its neighbors. Today an international court in The Hague sharply rebuked China. We'll hear an American perspective on what the tribunal's decision means for China in a moment. First NPR's Anthony Kuhn has reaction from Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Almost nothing in the ruling went China's way. The five-member panel rejected China's historical claims to most of the islands and waters in the South China Sea. They even agreed with the Philippines, who filed the lawsuit three years ago, that China is endangering sea turtles and coral reefs by building artificial islands in the sea. Just minutes before the verdict, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Lu Kang repeated China's position that the ruling would have no effect on China.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LU KANG: (Foreign language spoken).

KUHN: "China's protection of its own sovereignty and rights will not change with or without this ruling," he told reporters. Lu also suggested that the U.S. had instigated the Philippines to file the lawsuit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LU: (Foreign language spoken).

KUHN: "Before the U.S. began its so-called rebalance to Asia, the South China Sea was generally calm and peaceful," he said. Beijing may treat the tribunal and its ruling with contempt, but it's not completely indifferent to international public opinion. It recently released this propaganda video arguing that the U.S. and other countries had better not make waves unless they want to affect an estimated $5 trillion worth of commercial shipping that passes through the South China Sea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Do you want to buy the most fashionable cars or electronic devices with the state of the art technology? You better pray for the peace and safety of the ocean. That's right. I'm talking about the South China Sea.

KUHN: But Zhu Feng, an international relations expert at Nanjing University, says China's leaders are even more concerned about how folks at home will react to the ruling.

ZHU FENG: (Through interpreter) China certainly does not want this defeat to trigger a nationalist backlash from ordinary citizens or for them to start to doubt the government's legitimacy because of this.

KUHN: China's refusal to heed the ruling is likely to be seen as a rejection of the U.S.-dominated international order in Asia. The ruling may be impossible to enforce, and some analysts believe that's precisely the point Beijing wants to make.

HUGH WHITE: The whole situation in the South China Sea is seen in Beijing as a critical opportunity to assert China's strength in Asia and to demonstrate America's corresponding weakness.

KUHN: Hugh White is a professor of strategic studies at Australian National University. He argues that for several years China has been provoking the U.S.'s allies in the Western Pacific in order to show that those alliances are hollow and that the U.S.'s rebalance is, as the Chinese say, a paper tiger. So far, White says Washington has done little to prove them wrong.

WHITE: What that reflects is that the United States has made a mistake in seeing the South China Sea as the right place to draw a line.

KUHN: White adds that Beijing is betting that the U.S. has no stomach for direct confrontation and all they have to do is call Washington's bluff.

WHITE: They are more confident of America backing down than America is of China backing down.

KUHN: Of course, White adds, when two opponents are absolutely sure that the other side will back down, what you have is one very dangerous game of chicken. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.