David vs. Goliath in the South China Sea: The Philippines vs. China

Manila seems to have placed almost all of its strategic eggs in the (uncertain) legal basket.

In a dramatic display of strategic naiveté, the Philippines decided (early-October) to suspend the repair and upgrade of its age-old airstrip on the Spratly island of Thitu (Pagasa to the Filipinos), among the biggest and most prized land features in the South China Sea, which can generate its own 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The airstrip is critical to the Armed Forces of Philippines’ (AFP) ability to project power and defend its maritime claims beyond its immediate territorial waters.

For years, the Philippines has not fielded even a single modern fighter aircraft; South Korea is expected to deliver twelve FA 50 lead-in fighter jets (worth $415.7 million) in the coming years, while the Philippine Navy has gradually beefed up its miniscule, antiquated fleet. Thanks to the strategic foresight of the late Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos (1966-1986), who recognized the importance of establishing permanent, defensible structures over contested features in the South China Sea, the Philippines has managed to exercise effective and continuous sovereignty over the island, which hosts a permanent civilian community and boasts its own mayor. But the advantage has been slipping away.

Manila tried to justify the controversial move by emphasizing the (supposed) importance of maintaining “the moral high ground” amid the country’s pending legal complaint, at a special Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague, against China’s expansive maritime claims, as well as increasingly aggressive posturing within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In short, the Philippines has prioritized an inherently uncertain legal maneuver at the expense of investing in tangible mechanisms, which can actually protect the areas under its control.

Meanwhile, Manila and Washington have faced renewed legal and political obstacles to the implementation of the recently concluded Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which seeks to upgrade the U.S.-Philippine military alliance amid rising Chinese assertiveness. Other claimant states, from Vietnam to Taiwan, have accelerated their efforts at fortifying their position in Asia’s emerging maritime battlefront. Even nonclaimant states, such as Indonesia, have stepped up their efforts to counter what they see as a “real threat” (from China) to their maritime domain.

Strategic Innocence

As Jay Batongbacal, a leading maritime expert in the Philippines, recently told me, the Philippines’ case at The Hague, contrary to the position of some Filipino officials, “is not a slam dunk”. China has consistently refused to recognize the jurisdiction of any international body over territorial delimitation and sovereignty-related issues. No wonder, Beijing has adamantly rejected the whole arbitration process, accusing the Philippines of unnecessarily provoking a crisis by internationalizing what it sees as an essentially bilateral territorial dispute, which should be resolved primarily through diplomatic channels.

With China boycotting the whole arbitration process, and refusing to even clarify the exact coordinates of its notorious “nine-dash-line” doctrine, it is far from certain whether the Philippines can expect an expeditious, conclusive adjudication, which could tangibly support its claims in the South China Sea. Even if the Philippines manages to secure a favorable legal outcome, China can simply ignore it. After all, the arbitral tribunal is neither designed to conclusively settle sovereignty-related issues, nor does it possess a compliant-enforcement mechanism to ensure the proper implementation of its final decisions. Ultimately, China is more interested in de facto—rather than de jure—domination of the Western Pacific, which it treats as its natural backyard.

At best, a favorable outcome would simply enhance the Philippines’ “moral case” against a rising maritime power—China (which has, so far, withstood external diplomatic pressure on issues that it considers “core interests,” from the maritime disputes in the Western Pacific to the intensifying anti-Beijing movements in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan and Tibet).