The Philippines Stood Up to China—and Won

PLA Navy. Flickr/Simon Yang

A new era in the South China Sea has begun.

A new era has begun in the South China Sea. Things will never remain the same, even if facts on the ground will take some time to reflect new realities. China’s expansive maritime claims across the South China Sea have been nullified in unequivocal terms. Yes, China will surely go on to dismiss the verdict of an Arbitral Tribunal, constituted under the aegis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as “null and void,” “a piece of scrap paper” and a conspiracy of the West.

But no one—except China’s ruling party (the Communist Party of China), and millions of its citizens who have been influenced by the Patriotic Education Program—can deny that Beijing’s doctrine of “historic rights” and its expansive nine-dash line claims are a crude, baseless expression of protoimperial chutzpah without an inch of alignment with prevailing international law. Previously, despite opposing third party arbitration in some of their disputes with neighboring countries, both India and Russia eventually relented and complied with arbitration. America, which behaved like China during the Cold War, has signed the UNCLOS, but hasn’t ratified it. Yet, it observes its relevant positions as a matter of customary international law.

If China fails to comply with the verdict of an international legal body, it might as well as bid farewell to its claim to being a responsible, law-abiding power that aspires to be leader of Asia. Yes, China can go on and bribe landlocked African and South Asian countries that desperately rely on Chinese largesse. But much of the world will view China as a glorified, overbearing “outlaw” or, at the very least, just another imperial power in Eastern clothing.

What is at stake is not only the future of the Asian security architecture, but also China’s trajectory as the emerging global hyperpower. Just a decade ago, many welcomed the rise of China as a healthy dose of balance against Western hubris, particularly during the Bush administration. Today, a growing number of countries, from Eastern Europe to Southeast Asia, are beginning to reembrace America as an indispensable hedge against revisionist ambitions of Eastern powers. The ball is now in China’s court. It should prove that it is a protector of the global order, not a usurper of smaller nations’ rights in accordance to modern international law.

Without a question, China has been an indispensable source of development assistance, infrastructure investments and cultural enrichment for many of its neighbors and developing countries around the world. China is by no means a monolithic power. But it can’t claim authority and invite respect if it doesn’t recalibrate its aggressive maritime posturing in its near abroad. The Philippines, under President Rodrigo Duterte, is anxious to rebuild frayed ties with Beijing, but it is incumbent upon China to prove its good intentions in this regard.

Paradoxically, the simmering crisis in the South China Sea can serve as a strategic catharsis for a renaissance in China’s relations with aggrieved neighboring states, especially the Philippines. Mao Zedong pithily realized this dialectic when he exclaimed: “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.”

Trial of the Century

After three years of nerve-wracking anticipation, the Philippines concluded its high-profile lawfare (legal warfare) strategy against China in a dramatic fashion. It was a clean sweep. The Philippines won almost on every single one of its arguments against its giant neighbor, which coercively wrested control of the Philippine-claimed Mischief reef and Scarborough Shoal in 1994 and 2012.

To put things into perspective: the Scarborough Shoal is located slightly above one hundred nautical miles from Philippine shores, but six hundred nautical miles away from nearest Chinese coastline. China has no overlapping Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) with the Philippines. Yet it is China that has been preventing Filipino fishermen from exercising the Philippines’ sovereign rights, per UNCLOS, to exploit natural resources within its EEZ. This has been a key stumbling block in bilateral relations in recent years. A majority of Filipinos have an extremely negative view of China, which is seen as a nothing but a new, yet familiar imperial power on the horizon.