Magnetic Rocks, Part II: Assessing the Philippines' Legal Strategy in the South China Sea

A modern-day David vs. Goliath: the Philippines vs. China

Editors Note: This is the second in a two-part series assessing the legal strategies of the South China Sea claimants in their broader strategic context. Here, the author analyzes the strategy of the Philippines. For part one, please click here.

The Philippines must often feel as if it is engaged on the wrong side of a David-and-Goliath dispute in the South China Sea. In almost every respect, Manila finds itself at a disadvantage: it lacks the capability to protect its claims against sustained intrusions; its claims rest on shaky legal grounds; its friends and allies are unwilling to go to war to defend those claims; and its opponents are committed, cunning, and powerful.

Yet despite the odds, Manila has fared remarkably well, in large part because it has been able to capitalize on its strengths and conceal its weaknesses. After realizing that a dispute on China’s terms was no dispute at all, the Philippines turned the tables on Beijing with a pro-active strategy designed to exact concessions from its larger neighbor by forcing China to choose between specific maritime claims and its long-term interest in regional stability.

This strategy has evolved over time as China has responded in kind. At first, Manila relied heavily on efforts to change the situation on the ground and to internationalize the conflict. However, China was able to counteract the Philippines at each step with its greater maritime presence and international political capital.

As a result, the Philippines has recently turned to a third element of its pro-active strategy: international law. Despite the weakness of its own claims, the Philippines has been able to mastermind a comprehensive campaign against Beijing grounded in international law. This assault has centered around an arbitration case filed against China in January 2013, which has successfully—at least so far—backed the larger nation into a corner. But while this arbitration will be a critical waypoint for Manila along the road to consolidating control over its claims, it also raises unsettling questions about the unstable dynamic that has gripped the region.

Losing Hand

In many respects, the Philippines has been dealt a losing hand in the South China Sea dispute. Like China, the Philippines must contend with a serious strategic dilemma. On the one hand, it wants to consolidate control over its South China Sea claims. This ambition is buoyed by the fervent nationalism of its citizens, who loudly object either to any concessions on the Philippines’s part or to encroachment on the part of other contestants. On the other hand, though, Manila must also nourish its network of relationships in the region, including its ties with its fellow ASEAN members, with China, and with the United States. It’s no easy task for the Philippines to maintain amicable relations with its chief South China Sea rivals, many of whom possess far stronger legal claims than it does. It’s even harder when nurturing any one relationship can often appear to come at the expense of the others, given the zero-sum competition between many of the Philippines’s neighbors.

The dilemma is particularly thorny with respect to the Sino-Philippine relationship. China is the Philippine's chief competitor for control of the South China Sea. But China is also one of Manila’s primary trade partners, even if the Philippines depends relatively less on it than do other states in the neighborhood. In the past, Beijing has not been afraid to leverage its economic heft to express its displeasure with Philippine policy: during the Scarborough Shoal standoff, for example, China curbed imports of Philippine bananas and obstructed tourist visits.

More importantly, the Philippine navy pales in comparison to the People’s Liberation Army Navy. In a conflict between the two forces, the Philippines would face an uphill battle at best; a more honest assessment would describe the situation as “hopeless.” A similar disparity exists between the two nations’ civilian maritime enforcement capabilities. And when tensions flare, some in China have not been afraid to stress the Philippine military’s comparative weakness. Also during the Scarborough Shoal standoff, Chinese General Luo Yuan noted slyly that “considering the relative military strengths of China and the Philippines, the Filipino people can judge for themselves the wisdom or otherwise of their government’s decision to take this stand against China.”

Even the Philippines’s friends are not always dependable. Although Manila is a longstanding treaty ally of the United States, relations between the two countries have sometimes been rocky. Of course, Manila has ramped up its cooperation with Washington in recent years as the threat posed by China has grown more ominous. But despite its best efforts, the Philippines has been unable to persuade the United States to clarify the exact scope of their mutual defense treaty, and particularly how much it applies to disputed territory in the South China Sea. The Philippines also worries that even if Washington is theoretically committed to its Asian pivot, it may not be able to deliver because of budgetary woes at home.