China’s territorial challenge

In this Friday, July 8, 2016 photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese navy sailors search for targets onboard the missile destroyer Hefei during a military exercise in the waters near south China's Hainan Island and Paracel Islands. They are controlled by Beijing but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. China's navy is holding a week of military drills around the disputed islands ahead of a ruling by an international tribunal in a case filed by the Philippines challenging China's claim to most of the South China Sea. China is boycotting the case before The Hague-based court and says it will not accept the verdict. (Zha Chunming/Xinhua via AP)

Chinese President Xi Jinping evidently considers this a good time to force a military confrontation over America’s rejection of its claim to control the South China Sea. Look for some more serious trouble in the region, and hope for some backbone in Washington.

The official China Daily dismissed as a “farce directed by Washington” an international court ruling Tuesday that rightly found no legal basis for China’s claim to control most of the South China Sea. Meanwhile, China’s Foreign Ministry declared that the decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague was “invalid and has no binding force.”

The case had been brought by The Philippines, concerned about China’s aggressive claim over international waters. That apprehension is shared by other nations in the region who live in the shadow of China’s economy and military power.

President Xi told top Chinese officials celebrating the 95th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party last week that “we are not afraid of trouble” if it comes to a confrontation over “our national sovereignty, security or development interests.”

Then following a Tuesday meeting with visiting European Union leaders in Beijing, President Xi said China would not accept any claims based on the ruling.

China’s ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, said the international court ruling “will certainly intensify conflict and even confrontation.”

But that will happen only if China continues to reject the rights, vindicated by the court ruling, of the nations bordering the South China Sea — and those around the world — who rely on freedom of legally regulated navigation for global commerce in those waters.

President Barack Obama has so far risen to this challenge. In recent months, he has sent a powerful naval task force to assert the right of passage of all ships and aircraft crossing the South China Sea beyond China’s legal defense zones.

But China has said, in effect, that it will oppose these freedom of navigation exercises. If this dispute persists, our next president could find herself — or himself — facing a nasty confrontation with an antagonistic Chinese regime that has strengthened its military considerably over the last two decades.

To his credit, President Obama has repeatedly said the United States wants the nations with conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea, including China, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, to resolve their differences through negotiation.

Without a U.S. military presence in the region, the smaller nations, likely to face repeated bullying by China, have all grown closer to the United States as a result.

China also has made provocative moves over the last few years against established Japanese territorial rights in the East China Sea, promoting justified U.S. protests.

If China’s expansionist threats against its neighbors continue, it will take stiff American resolve to maintain a critical legal principle — freedom of the seas — and an essential diplomatic one — peaceful resolution of disputes.

That daunting challenge should be seriously addressed in the presidential campaign, even as President Obama’s administration continues its efforts to blunt China’s overreaching ambitions.