For over a decade, tensions have risen slowly but steadily in the contested Asia-Pacific maritime environment as China pursues a three-pronged strategy of building up war-fighting and power projection capabilities, calibrated shows of force and a strategy of exhaustion against rival claimants (Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines). Apparently random and sporadic acts of provocation and showdown, deliberately held below the threshold of open warfare, are calculated to induce strategic fatigue over time, erode regional confidence and cumulatively break the political resolve to resist.

In 2013, the Philippines injected a potential circuit breaker by referring its maritime territorial dispute with China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague. Its judgment, delivered July 12, upholds almost all of the Philippines complaint and is a comprehensive rejection of most of China’s claims, in particular the “nine dash line” that no one else recognizes, and a sweeping rebuke of China’s conduct. The unexpectedly tough rebuff vindicates the Philippines strategy of using international law and U.N. arbitration as instruments to redress power asymmetries in bilateral disputes.

The ripples will be felt far and wide. Japan may be adversely affected in its claims to Okinotorishima that Japan occupies but Taiwan claims. Even Australia’s actions regarding the Elizabeth and Middleton reefs could come under scrutiny.

The larger strategic backdrop is the shifting U.S.-China relationship: the relative waning of U.S. power and the steady accretion of power, wealth and clout by China. Historically, Washington has neither treated another country as an equal nor confronted a multidimensional, sophisticated and comprehensive national power like China. As China fills out as a major power, uncontested U.S. primacy will become increasingly unsustainable, yet a U.S. withdrawal from the region could be destabilizing.

China will almost certainly interpret the PCA verdict as yet another instance in the long history of the West’s use of international law as an ideological battering ram with which to break down the defenses of sovereign but vulnerable non-Western states. The end result may thus be a hardening rather than a softening of Beijing’s belligerent rhetoric and actions. A second risk is that as a U.S. ally, Manila may feel emboldened to escalate risk-magnifying behavior.

In Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice,” Shylock explains his insistence on extracting the pound of flesh from the indebted Antonio by enumerating the many injuries and insults to which Jews are routinely subjected: “The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” What if China was to respond by mimicking America as the model par excellence of great power behavior?

When the Sandinista government took power in Nicaragua (1979-1990), Washington tried its best to destabilize the Marxist regime on its doorstep through covert warfare. Nicaragua took its case to the International Court of Justice in 1984, charging the United States with armed aggression by mining its harbors and supporting the Contra rebels. Washington, like China this year, withdrew from the World Court’s jurisdiction, boycotted the judicial proceedings and then dismissed the court’s guilty verdict of June 27, 1986, by a 12-3 majority, for having illegally intervened in Nicaragua’s internal affairs, violating its sovereignty and using force against it. The U.S. also ignored the court’s order to cease support immediately to the armed insurgency in Nicaragua and to pay reparations.

China has similarly dismissed the court’s findings as null and void, lacking any binding force, and illegal as well as illegitimate. Like Washington in the 1980s, Beijing today insists the dispute is essentially political, does not belong in the juridical arena and should be settled bilaterally. The only recourse for enforcement of court decisions is the U.N. Security Council — where China and the U.S. are veto-wielding permanent members. In the Nicaragua case, Washington vetoed enforcement efforts.

The Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) was adopted in Rome in 1998 and came into effect in 2002. Washington signed on Dec. 31, 2000, but President George W. Bush took the unique legal decision to “unsign” the Rome Statute on May 6, 2002.

China signed the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1982 and ratified it in 1996. The U.S. has never done so. China’s leaders are incensed that as a nonparty, Washington has the chutzpah to lecture Beijing on obeying UNCLOS. Instead, there is discussion in China’s policy and strategic circles on the merits and costs of following the U.S. ICC example and “unsigning” UNCLOS. I was party to one such conversation with very senior policymakers in Beijing a couple of years ago.

In Iraq in 2003, the U.S. waged an illegal war of aggression and occupation. The Nuremberg Military Tribunals described aggression as “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” On any objective scale, aggression is a far graver breach of international law than attempting to colonize uninhabited reefs and rocks in the sea. But no belligerent country since 2003 has been held criminally accountable.

Australia — which like the U.S. has not been reticent in demanding China’s conformity to a rules-based order by accepting the court’s ruling on the South China Sea dispute — is also guilty of behavior toward its smaller, weak and extremely poor neighbor East Timor that bears remarkable structural similarity to China’s bullying of smaller Asian countries.

In its moment of unipolar triumph at the end of the Cold War, Washington faced a fundamental choice. It could have embarked on a quest to lock in the normative instruments of the liberal international order that was largely a U.S. creation after 1945, and subjected its own actions to the resulting international normative constraints. Instead it locked in U.S. exceptionalism and now, as its relative geopolitical clout fades, China is proving just how good and diligent a pupil it has been in internalizing the lessons of U.S. exceptionalism as the one and only model for an aspiring great power’s international conduct.

China has even attacked Shunji Yanai, who as president of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in 2013 had to choose four of the five arbitration tribunal judges to hear the case. Beijing, despite having given up its right to select one judge and agree to remaining choices by deciding against participation in the proceedings, impugned Yanai’s impartiality and integrity. Again, this brings up memories of the neocons’ crusade against Kofi Annan after the U.N. secretary-general had the temerity to say the Iraq War was illegal. But of course, what matters is not the actual history of personal attacks, but that by nature Washington would never stoop to such conduct.

Thus China’s choices in mimicking past U.S. policy range from ignoring the PCA ruling to unsigning UNCLOS, impugning the judges’ character and attacking and occupying a third country not involved in the case.

Between them, consequently, Beijing and Washington are set to ensure that Asia and the world will continue to live in interesting times.

All that said, perhaps someone should educate Chinese President Xi Jinping of Shylock’s unhappy fate.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

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