New Delhi: Does the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) sweeping indictment of China set off its decline as a totalitarian Great Power? Very likely. This may not be apparent in the present. But in months and years ahead, the ruling of the PCA on the South China Sea will manifestly impact China’s future trajectory.

There is always a tipping point when a Great Power or an aggressive one goes into decline. Hitler’s aggression against Poland was a blunder because it ended the West’s appeasement of the Nazi dictator. Hitler’s war against the Soviet Union destroyed whatever little chances of success he had.

History prior to World War 2 also had its infection points. If the Austro-Hungarian Empire had leaned on Serbia to get the assassin of the Archduke Ferdinand without rushing to war, there would possibly never have been a global conflict. If Napoleon had not set out to conquer Russia, Cardinal Richelieu would have seen his dream of a greater France realized.

In modern times, war and overextension need not always be the cause of decline, though they usually are. A sharp judgement like that of the PCA at The Hague could knock the moral foundations of a carefully constructed expansionistic strategy. China may issue any number of white papers justifying its claims to the South China Sea. But few countries (barring the usual suspects like Pakistan) will come out publicly in support of it. It can threaten its neighbours even more. But without the moral force to back it, the threats will steadily lose their intimidatory edge.

International power politics is mostly run on two principles creatively interacting with one another. One is Woodrow Wilson’s rule-based approach which has created institutions like the United Nations which is itself a successor of the League of Nations. The United States does not always follow Wilson’s rule-based approach but its interventions since World War 2 have generally hewed to the principle or at least to pretensions of it. Even George W. Bush can lay claim to some Wilsonian instructions.

The other principle of international politics is the balance of power. Its earliest application is traced to Richelieu and his destructive role in the Thirty Years’ War which led to the Peace of Westphalia. It was later applied by Great Britain with consummate skill in the Napoleonic Wars and guaranteed European peace flowing from the Congress of Vienna for decades save the years of the Crimean War.

The net result of Wilsonian principles mingling with balance of power strategies is that no war or hostile intent anywhere in the world can get seriously out of hand. Whatever anyone else says, the chances for a Third World War are slim. The thrust towards democratic government is greater worldwide than any time before and it is a central condition for international peace which Wilson desired. His vision is coming through.

On the other hand, the long and sustained practise of the balance of power has made it part and parcel of international politics. Whenever a single aggressor power rises, it will be challenged by a coalition. China is no exception to this rule. So far, it conducted its affairs in the sanguine belief that it could subvert the foundational principles of international politics. Its true place has been shown by a tiny nation and its appeal for arbitration over vital international waters. China may huff and puff but it knows the game is over.

China is constrained by a third factor of international politics and that is legitimacy. Legitimacy has always mediated international politics but as wars of prior global scales become rare, legitimacy has come into its own as a determining factor. If China were a democracy, it would not have faced the pressure and ignominy it does on the PCA ruling. It is very likely too that democratic China would not have laid a brazen claim on world seas and militarized it. The ruling, therefore, constitutes a double whammy. It delegitimizes Chinese claims to the South China Sea in the eyes of the world. It also delegitimizes the totalitarian state which has debased China globally. This legitimacy deficit will come to haunt China.

Expect heightened Chinese belligerency in the near-term. But it will not compensate for the lost face. One by one, the nations of East Asia will challenge its hegemony. They will be joined by the world powers, including India. The present Chinese leadership will come under immense threat, and the People’s Liberation Army will seize the chance to provoke hyper-nationalism. But the big difference from before is this. China has lost the battle of legitimacy. The rule-based world order and the balance of power will contain China. It is never rational to ally with hubris.